A Tribune reporter discovers the cuisine of Ethiopia

First Published      Last Updated Mar 02 2017 05:04 pm

A taste of Ethiopia » One traveler’s encounter with the country’s spicy fare, colorful customs and welcoming nature is sure to pique your appetite; fortunately, several local restaurants can sate it.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia • Aimaz Zadha digs up a brick of pulp from a false banana plant that was wrapped in leaves and buried two months earlier to ferment. She will chop it, knead into dough and roll it out like a pizza crust to be cooked on a steel plate over an open flame.

The kita bread is a staple of the Dorze people, whose village is surrounded by bamboo and eucalyptus forests 6,000 feet above Lake Chamo in this east African country that is twice the size of Texas.

The bread is served with wild honey and a red sauce hot enough to make a Bengali cry. It's sometimes accompanied by a locally distilled high-octane corn liquor that keeps them warm during the rainy season. It burns, too.

Because it is Timkat, the Jan. 20 celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ, some villagers participated in a symbolic ceremony transporting the Ark of the Covenant (that encapsulates the Ten Commandments) to the river and back. Others rejoiced with a tasty honey wine called tej. A lot of tej. Everyone was quite happy and welcoming of a strange white person.

Down the mountain at Arba Minch, the biggest town in the southwest region of the country, pilgrims dressed in white gathered along the banks of the Kulfo River to bathe themselves and splash friends with the holy water. Timkat is a joyous occasion of togetherness.

This country of 90 million has a majority Orthodox Christian population and is home to seven ethnic groups who speak a host of dialects. The cuisine is as varied and delightful as its residents. On a recent visit there, I was taken by the friendly people and their fresh and delicious food.

Ethiopia's topography varies from forested mountains to scrubby lowlands, where even goats struggle to survive in a dry year. Between them is fertile land where farmers grow coffee, bananas, cotton, avocado, tobacco, corn, tomatoes and almost anything, it seems — even watermelon.

Some of the tastiest dishes are spicy stews: shiro, made with chickpeas; and a lentil dish, masir wat. Other specialties include raw beef, grilled goat and doro wat — a chicken stew.

A key ingredient in many Ethiopian dishes is berbere, a mixture of spices and herbs that includes chile peppers, cumin, garlic, ginger — and up to a dozen more, depending on the cook.

When Americans think of Ethiopian food, we most often picture injera, a spongy flat bread that is commonly used to scoop up aromatic vegetarian and meaty stews. It is used in place of utensils and is ubiquitous in many Ethiopian locales. Injera is made with teff, a grain from the highlands that is practically gluten-free.

Salt Lake City plays host to at least three restaurants with Ethiopian cuisine — African Restaurant, 1878 S. Redwood Road; the Blue Nile, 755 S. State; and Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant and Market, 1465 S. State — where your taste buds can experience something unlike anything you'll find elsewhere.

Only in Africa • Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, sits at about 7,000 feet and boasts a Southern California-like climate, with 12-hour days and nights year round. Unfortunately, the sprawling city of 5 million suffers from traffic jams and accompanying air pollution.

The countryside, however, smells sweet and clean and is filled with marvelous sights and the comings and goings of Africans who walk and walk and walk. Everyone uses the highway — donkey carts, women carrying huge loads, as well as goat and cattle herds that are sometimes guided by kids with switches.

A day's drive south and west of the capital lie Lake Chamo and its sister, Lake Abaya, at about 3,000 feet. They are among seven lakes within Africa's Great Rift Valley.

Around Lake Chamo, tilapia is popular. Fishermen standing on little boats that look like wood slats throw nets, apparently unafraid of the crocodiles and hippos that swim nearby. The locals grill the tilapia whole and eat it, skin and all — simply delicious.

From there, my fun-loving guide, Chapy, and easygoing interpreter, Gino, and I headed into the rugged and dry Lower Omo Valley near Kenya to the south and South Sudan to the east. This fascinating region is home to a number of indigenous tribes, mainly herders who live like they have for perhaps a thousand years.

But the massive Gibe III hydroelectric dam and two others planned for the area could upset the fragile ecosystem and threaten their livelihoods. Beyond that, the Ethiopian government is leasing out large tracts for plantations on historic tribal grazing lands.

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A passage to Ethiopia — SLC style

I was all schooled up on Ethiopian food after a wonderful trip, and back at home, I had a hankering for more.

It was a Sunday, but no worry, Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant & Market was open, and I could smell the shiro from the parking lot.

Shiro wat is a spicy stew made with chickpeas and onions and garlic and berbere spice. It’s a simple vegetarian dish that I couldn’t resist in Ethiopia.

I made my order to Sleshi Tadesse, the owner and operator of the Salt Lake eatery, and counted the minutes until its arrival.

As is typical, the spicy stew came atop a big round of injera — the spongy flatbread that is used in place of utensils in Ethiopia. Before my trip, I would always ask for utensils, because eating one-handed with injera requires some skill. But not this time. I was going to do it the way my guide, Chapy, had instructed me.

I tore a piece of injera off with my right hand and set about scooping up the wonderful shiro, something like a tortilla chip into guacamole. But eating with injera is divorced by several orders of difficulty from chips and guacamole — think of a two-and-a-half gainer with a full twist off the high board compared to a cannon ball from poolside.

Anyway, I managed to get some shiro in and around my mouth. Oh baby, it was so good.

In Ethiopia, you don’t get napkins. Luckily, at Mahider, you can have as many as you need. And I needed a lot.

A side note: In Ethiopia, it’s all right to eat off your friend’s plate, if you see something you like. And no, you don’t ask, you just do it. Even if you’re just walking by to say hello. “Hi, how are you? Ooh, this is good.”

Despite my lack of skill with injera, I wasn’t going to stop eating until all the shiro was gone. The feat, however, required a lot of the spongy flatbread. Next time, I think I’ll opt for utensils and eat less injera. And it should save about 10 napkins and the embarrassment of shiro in my beard.

So don’t be shy about asking for utensils, especially if you eat Chinese food with a fork. It’s learned behavior and doesn’t necessarily reflect upon your intelligence — unless your friends are snobs.

When first exploring Ethiopian cuisine, many Americans like to order combo dishes. At all three Ethiopian restaurants in Salt Lake City, you can do just that, getting a taste of a variety of east African mainstays that can be served with or without chicken, beef or goat.

Combo plates will help you zero in on your favorite dishes. At the same time, you can practice your injera skills, knowing you have the safety of that spoon and fork nearby.