Friday, September 4, 2009

Week #1: Ethiopian

... So as I was saying a couple of days ago, I'm spending the next year eating my way around the world without leaving home, or at least without pulling out my passport. I don't have to, because immigrants have brought with them one of their greatest treasures--the foods they miss. Being an immigrant from Tennessee, I certainly understand this need for a taste of home: I've had my share of dry-rubbed pork ribs FedEx'd from Memphis; I've lovingly collected a coffee can full of bacon drippings for the flavor they bring to all kinds of foods, including the cornbread I make in the well-seasoned iron skillet that's older than Himself and me combined; and every trip home I crowd my luggage with hog jowls, bacon, ham and cracklins, as you've no doubt read about in this blog.

It's intriguing to discover the cuisines that are available in your own town, whether the population is 1,000, 10,000, 100,000, 1 million or more. Food comes with stories, history, human drama, religion, name it.

I'm starting in Ethiopia, where the food traditions are strong in spite of the scarcity there of food itself. Himself and I headed to Nyala in Los Angeles' Little Ethiopia to satisfy our craving for some wonderfully savory fare.
We ordered a combination of vegetarian and meat platters, so we could try a bit of everything. Ethiopia has large populations of Coptic Christians and Muslims, along with some Jews, so there is no pork in their culinary repertoire. And with the many fasting days dictated by the Coptic Church, the cuisine features a lot of vegetarian dishes. I appreciate that they serve both--I don't mind vegetarian entrées if I know meat is still available. And when the veggies are so creatively and aggressively seasoned, I don't miss the meat at all. But we weren't going to turn our noses up at the beef, chicken and lamb. The vegetarian platter included collards (yes, my Southern brethren and sistren, those gnarly greens came from Africa), a mixture of vegetables and three types of lentils, along with a bit of salad (was that a holdover from Italian colonialism, I wonder?).

The lentils and meats were each made into a rich stew known as wot. They were spicy and flavorful, with varying degrees of heat. All the lentil stews were cooked with garlic and ginger, with the yellow lentils being mildest. The red lentils were seasoned with a sauce called berbere, a combination of spices and several varieties of reallllly hot chilis. The meats were cooked in butter and seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger, the chicken with lemon juice and the lamb and beef with red wine. And goosed with enough berbere to keep them interesting.
All of this food was served on top of a large crepe-like bread called injera, a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. It's made of teff, a minuscule grain that produces a thin, spongy bread with a sourdough flavor. Injera is the great multitasker of the Ethiopian meal, serving as the plate, the utensil and the bread. In some cases, the entire table is covered with injera in place of a tablecloth (just not in L.A., where the health department would no doubt have something to say about it!). I love eating with injera: it's so satisfying to experience food this way, much more tactile and intimate than when it moves between plate and mouth on a fork or between a pair of chopsticks.

The best injera was the piece lining the tray. By the time we polished off our basket of injera and most of the food on the tray, what was left was the layer of injera into which the juices of our meal had soaked, messy but oh-so satisfying.

Our end-of-the meal Ethiopian coffee tray arrived with a piece of red-hot charcoal bearing a lump of frankincense, which created a warm and heady aroma (it's probably a good thing we opted for water over Ethiopian wine or beer, or we might have fallen asleep right where we sat). The coffee, brewed in this small pot called a jabana, was rich and commanding.

The restaurant was resplendent with its colorful artwork and artifacts. The music and incense helped complete the illusion that we were on the Horn of Africa, not a stone's throw away from the Beverly Center.

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