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MOST ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANTS tend to have the same familiar items on their menus – items that ferenj (foreigners) have come to know and enjoy. This is largely true of all restaurants in the U.S. that serve international cuisine. But now and then, an Ethiopian restaurant will serve a dish that’s either a variation of its native cuisine, adapted to its diaspora guests, or a native dish that restaurants in America don’t usually serve.
I’ve pored over the menus of many Ethiopian restaurants to bring together this roundup of some of the more unusual offerings.
The town of Lancaster is a center of Amish life in Pennsylvania, and it’s not known for its culinary diversity. But in 2010, Addisu Eggu opened his eponymous restaurant, Addisu, serving a full menu of Ethiopian cuisine in the small city that lies at the heart of a largely rural region.
One of Addisu’s unusual dishes has no Amharic name on the menu, which describes it like this: “Special Blend of Beans dish: Beans sautéed with tomatoes, onions and garlic, finished with awaze sauce.” An Ethiopian-American friend of mine who lives in Addis was certain this described ful, a dish of fava beans, tomatoes and onions, imported to Ethiopia from Arabic-speaking culture, and often served for breakfast with a piece of crusty Italian-style bread.
But Addisu says the Amharic name for his dish would be adangware, which is one of the Amharic dictionary’s words for beans. The other word, baqela, is the common word for fava beans, which are used in ful. Addisu says he uses white and green beans in preparing adangware.
Then there’s afaagn, which Addisu’s menu describes like this: “Addisu Special Afaagn: Western Ethiopia’s famous dish! Ground beef, hot peppers, garlic, ginger and a blend of spices.” This is an Oromo preparation, although Addisu, who is Oromo, says people all over the country enjoy it. Addisu defines the word afaagn as “under cover.” (The “gn” in transliterated Ethiopian words sounds sort of like a quick “nyuh.”)
James McCann, an Ethiopian scholar who teaches at Boston University, speculates that afaagn could be “a local term for kitfo tibs, a sautéed version of the Gurage dish, but also loved by the Oromo.” He says afaagn sounds a little like ifugn, a Tigrinya word for maize that means “covered,” because the ears of corn are covered by the husks. This could be why Addisu says the name of the dish means “under cover.”
But I still can’t solve the mystery of why this word is the name for a stew of spicy ground beef with tomatoes and onions. “Interesting,” says McCann, “how the diaspora molds new culture.”
And speaking of Oromo: African Restaurant, in Salt Lake City, is one of the few Ethiopian restaurants with a menu that names its dishes in Afaan Oromo rather than Amharic (or Tigrinya, in the case of Eritrean restaurants, or Ethiopian restaurants owned by people from the north of the country).
There have long been tensions between the majority Oromos and the minority ruling cultures in Ethiopia, and the restaurant’s owner, Rundassa Eshete, is an Oromo who says he would never use Amharic on his menu. That’s why he doesn’t label his place an “Ethiopian” restaurant: Rundassa, who was born and raised in the country that the world calls Ethiopia, doesn’t call himself an Ethiopian.
So on his menu, if you want what Amharic calls a beyaynetu, a combination platter, you need to order the walmaka, which is the Afaan Oromo word. Don’t count on finding any injera at African Restaurant: It’s called budeena, although it’s the same thing. The spicy stew called a wot at other restaurants is kochee here; tibs, or meat fried with spices, is waaddi; and the famililar doro (chicken) is handaanqoo.
But names aside, once you read the descriptions of the dishes, they’ll be what you know from other restaurants. Kochee handaanqoo is “tender chicken legs sautéed in seasoned butter and stewed in barbare sauce with boiled eggs, flavored with onions, garlic and ginger root with a pinch of cardamoms and nutmeg and qimamii.” This is the Amharic doro wot, sometimes called the Ethiopian national dish. (N.B. Qimamii is the Afaan Oromo for kibe, or Ethiopian spiced butter.) And how about raafuu, described as “collard greens cooked with onions, green pepper, garlic, oil and ginger root.” You probably know this dish as gomen.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Ethiopian community has a large Oromo population, and at Blue Nile, you’ll find an explanation of Ethiopian cuisine that revolves around the Oromo names but that also includes a few Amharic names as well.
Some of the names at Blue Nile are different than the ones on the menu at African Restaurant because Blue Nile has simply chosen different words to describe its dishes. It’s the difference between “stew” versus “sauce” versus “porridge.” Blue Nile calls its chicken dish lukku, the Afaan Oromo word for “hen,” whereas African Restaurant uses handaanqoo, the word for “chicken.”
Fasika in St. Paul names its dishes in Amharic but offers a few unusual entrées with even more unusual names. The restaurant’s yebalager tibs is a dish of “home style smoke flavored lamb.” An Ethiopian friend tells me that the Amharic word balager means “countryside,” so the name associates this dish and its smoky flavor with country cookin’.
Fasika’s moja asa, a pan-fried spiced catfish served with rice, is both unusual and a little ironic. The name literally means “wealthy fish” because, an Ethiopian friend explained, catfish is rare in Ethiopia, so only the wealthy would eat it (plus it’s the most expensive fish entrée on the menu). Fasika also serves asa kitfo, which is “chopped catfish cooked in spiced butter,” so it’s not quite kitfo, a chopped beef dish traditionally served raw or very rare. (Read my earlier post about the Ethiopian love of raw meat.)
The most religious Ethiopians follow Old Testament dietary codes, which forbid the consumption of any fish that doesn’t have scales – like catfish. Of course, the code also forbids mixing meat and dairy products, a rule followed by Jews who keep kosher, although not by Ethiopian Christians: kibe is a key ingredient in meat dishes, and some of the best wots will come swimming in the Ethiopian spiced butter. But you’ll never find pork on the menu of an Ethiopian restaurant.
Muzita Abyssinian Bistro in San Diego wants to “bring Ethiopian and Eritrean food into the cuisine level,” says the restaurant’s general manager, Michael Lunsford. It’s sort of fusion cuisine, with many of the basic ingredients presented in imaginative ways, and with Tigrinya names for dishes on the menu rather than Amharic names because the owner is Eritrean.
The restaurant uses teff as a light breading for fried okra and cornmeal breading for its crispy calamari kilwa, using the Tigrinya word for a fried dish (more often spelled kulwa). There’s tofu in awaze sauce, a leg of lamb seasoned with Ethio-Eritrean spices, and a spicy lentil spread inside a toasted round of injera that they call birsn korosho: The first word is Tigrinya for lentils, and the second word means dried crispy pieces of injera, called dirkosh in Amharic – although interestingly, the restaurant uses the word injera rather than the Tigrinya word taita.
And speaking of dirkosh: When you have dinner at Ghenet in Brooklyn, you get a little bowl of the crunchy treat to munch while you’re waiting for your meal, and some hummus to dip it in. It’s the half-Ethiopian equivalent of Mexican chips and salsa, or Chinese fried noodles and duck sauce. I didn’t think of this when I last ate there, but you might want to ask for some awaze to use as a dip. That’s a spicy simmer sauce made by mixing berbere with water and olive oil – or water, t’ej and olive oil, especially if you plan to use the awaze in cooking.
The restaurant also has some unique appetizers featuring kategna – that is, injera made crispy by heating it in a frying pan, and then smearing it with a rich spicy mixture of kibe and berbere. You can get your kategna wrapped around tuna or kitfo.
Many Africans were proud when Barack Obama became president of the United States, but at least two Ethiopian restaurants decided to honor him with a meal. At Selam in San Jose, Calif., you can order a dish called “Obama,” a blend of ground beef, chopped onions, diced tomatoes, niter kibe and some berbere and black pepper to spice it up. (See it prepared in the video below.) There’s also an “Obama” dish on the menu at Hamer, an Ethiopian restaurant in London, but the menu doesn’t describe it, and they haven’t answered my emails.
But right above “Obama” on Hamer’s menu is a most unusual pair of entrees that the restaurant calls qintot. That’s an Amharic word that literally means “luxury,” but in a figure of speech, it describes the petulant demands of a very spoiled person. Qintot 1 on the menu consists of “Obama, tere siga, cooked kitfo, slice of qocho, ayb with gomen.” Qintot 2 is all of that plus “1/4 kilo of tere meat.” Tere is Amharic for “raw,” so these two qintot meals come with a ton of artery-clogging food. Anyone who demands it must surely be very spoiled – hence the quirky name for the dishes.
And by the way, four weeks before Obama’s election, a restaurant called Obama opened in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia (look at this billboard and road sign for the place), as well as a restaurant in Toronto called African Palace that has a convivial “Obama Claus” painted on its window.
Madjet in Washington, D.C., has no special dishes per se, but it does have a sense of humor in naming some of its offerings. For example, have some “Vayyagra,” with the name also written in Amharic letters on the menu. It’s the Ethiopian traditional beef tibs, “our house special,” the menu explains. “Yes, we hear it does the trick.” Or try “Taytanik,” a larger portion of tibs. Says the menu: “You got it, it’s big.” Or “Jelati,” which is “meltingly tender and juicy pan-fried chunks of beef.” The name is a pun that refers to the Italian influence on Ethiopian cuisine.
The Ethiopian breakfast is often one of several traditional dishes: ful, the Arabic import made of mashed fava beans; bula , a pasty porridge made from reconstituted enset powder; and genfo, a porridge-like dish rarely found at restaurants – and offered by Queen of Sheba in Washington, D.C. The restaurant refers to it as “Ethiopian-style fufu,” and it’s a good comparison: Fufu, a dish popular across western Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, etc.), is made by boiling root vegetables, like yams or cassavas, and pounding them into thick pasty balls about the size of a fist. You can eat fufu by itself, or you can dip it in any of a number of spicy dishes (my favorite is egusi).
Genfo is a just little different, and Queen of Sheba’s menu describes it like this: “Organic whole wheat flour boiled in water, beaten and stirred until smooth and thick and served with a spicy home made butter, berbere and yogurt.” Their genfo comes on a plate in amorphous balls, with yogurt dollops on top, and a cup in the middle with the berbere-spiced kibe for dipping. It’s a rare and authentic Ethiopian morning treat.
Finally, if you’re in D.C. and want an Ethiopian dessert, stop by Queen of Sheba, where you can enjoy any of a variety of smoothies, including the quasi-Ethiopian “Sheba Smoothie,” which includes honey and flax seeds, two ingredients used in Ethiopian cooking. Dessert isn’t an element of native Ethiopian cuisine, and when restaurants serve sweets, they’re always from another culture. So Queen of Sheba’s smoothies are a welcomed treat.
University of Pittsburgh