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Demystifying Strange Foods: Ethiopian Food

Welcome to Demystifying Strange Foods, a series that introduces amazing cultures through their delicious foods, and in the process demystify both said culture and food.

A close friend introduced me to Ethiopian food two years ago, and I’ve been an hopeless junkie ever since. Many times a week, I get cravings for Ethiopian flavors that manifest themselves physically if I don’t satisfy the pain hunger. Is this how zombies feel?

When tourists visit our beloved little city, they dine at Ben’s Chili Bowl or Old Ebbitt Grill, but sadly leave without ever stepping foot inside an Ethiopian restaurant.

Washington is home to approximately 200,000 Ethiopians, the largest Ethiopian community in the US, which means we’re fortunate to have the best Ethiopian food in the country.

Not even New York can claim that!

For those of you still living who are intimidated by Ethiopian food and the thought of eating with your bare hands (!), here’s everything you need to know but were afraid to ask:

When you enter an Ethiopian restaurant, you’ll find standard tables and chairs–or short, woven tables that look like a shallow basket on a pedestal. These are called mesob and you’ll see that they cradle the large platters of food you’ll eat on perfectly.

There’s no silverware, no forks, no knives. Much like two high school kids in the backseat of a car, this is all about using your hands. The platter will be lined with injera, a traditional Ethiopian bread made with teff flour. Injera looks like a big, spongy pancake the size of a pizza, and tastes like sourdough bread. It’s essentially a large sourdough crepe. Your food will be served in a ring of mounds on the injera like a painter’s palette. It’s beautiful, exciting, fragrant and delicious!

As with many parts of the world, you typically would eat with your right hand since the left is reserved for cleansing your body–which by the way you did do, right? Go wash those hands! What if you’re left-handed? Learn to be ambidextrous or risk horrified looks on the people around you.

Ethiopian cooking uses a lot of berbere, which is a ground orange-red powder of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima and fenugreek, which gives Ethiopian food its distinct flavors. Not all Ethiopian food is spicy, though jalapeno peppers do make a regular appearance. Berbere more tangy and complex more than spicy as we know it, and it has a interesting, deep, smoky flavor that will delight you.

What’s on the menu? Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays, Fridays and during Lent, so you’ll find plenty of vegetarian options but also beef, lamb, chicken, fish, coffee and desserts.

Wots are stews; kitfo, is raw, warmed meat, like steak tartare; and tibs are sautéed meat with vegetables. Feeding a loved one the best morsels is encouraged; the tradition is called gursha. Ethiopian is pretty phonetic. Learn how to pronounce Ethiopian dishes here.

Ethiopian coffee is made in a long, ritualized process that could take hours. You may see a woman sitting in the corner roasting coffee beans, and you’ll smell the fragrant smoke. Take your coffee with sugar and no milk. It’s strong and one of the highlights of Ethiopian fare. Unfortunately, desserts are not. Sweets are not common after dinner, however you may find chocolate cake or tiramisu on the menu due to the Italian influence in Ethiopia.

Ready to practice your newfound knowledge? Then go forth and eat! Here are some of our favorite Ethiopian restaurants in town:[box_light]

  • Dukem, 1114 U Street NW, Washington, DC. 202.667.8735. What to order: shiro wot, a creamy yellow stew made with chick peas; the special lamb tibs; steak tartare-like kitfo with home-made cottage cheese, herbal butter, and cardamom. Get it raw or medium rare.
  • Etete, 1942 9th Street NW, Washington, DC. 202.232.7600. What to order: any of the vegetarian combos; crunchy, fried tilapia; the beef tibs.
  • Ethiopic, 401 H Street NE, Washington, DC. 202.675.2066 What to order: signature shiro wot with puréed split peas, red onions and garlic; doro key wot chicken legs simmered in spicy hot sauce with hard-boiled egg.
  • Meskerem, 2434 18th Street NW, Washington, DC. 202.462.4100. Food is served on traditional mesob. What to order: Meskerem Messob, a combination of beef, chicken, lamb and vegetables; flaky, crispy carrot-potato sambusas.
  • Addis Ababa, 8233 Fenton Street, Silver Spring, MD. 301.589.1400. Food is served on traditional mesob, surrounded by low stools. What to order: the lunch buffet ($7.95) from 11:00 am – 2:30 pm, which is a perfect opportunity to try everything at a great price.
  • Soretti’s, 15510 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville, MD. 240.390.0044. What to order: Ethiopian coffee; a dozen perfectly-crispy, deliciously-fried sambusas ($12) in lentil, chicken or beef.
  • Abol, 8626 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. 301.650.0061. Contemporary dining, with food served in dishes. Still, don’t expect a knife and fork. What to order: kuanta firfir dried beef sauteed in berbere and mixed with pieces of injera; shenbra asa we’t chick peas simmered in berbere.

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Mary Kong-DeVito

Mary grew up in New York where the food-centric city and her family's restaurants were literally her playground. Instead of eating dirt, she ate duck blood and rotten eggs. You never know what you'll find on the sidewalks.Mary is a veteran of the hospitality industry who's worked with numerous celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Patrick Ewing, Vanessa Williams, Michael Stipe and Jane Krakowski. Her writing has appeared in DC Modern Luxury, Washington Post Express, Eater, Scoutmob, Washington Flyer and Washington City Paper.She eats "normal" stuff too, like cheeseburgers. Kangaroo cheeseburgers.

4 comments

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  1. Teri 8 March, 2013 at 13:15 Reply

    There is a nasty little bar on the left of the page for tweet. FB, Pinterest, etc, so I can’y see the wwhole article or even what I am typing now. I love Ethiopian food but need pictures to remind me what’s what (or what’s Wott) any suggestions?
    & get rid of that side bar!!

  2. Angel 8 November, 2013 at 10:09 Reply

    Have a question, I recently went to Ethiopian restaurant as you mentioned they serve the dish in a large pizza size bread. Is is normal to eat that large bread at the end or only the side bread rolls are to be eaten?

    • Mary 8 November, 2013 at 10:59 Reply

      I personally prefer to use the injera that the food is served on to scoop of morsels of food because it’s already soaked with delicious sauces and flavors!

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