HOW ABOUT ETHIOPIAN?

A recent visit to our daughter’s new home in Brooklyn presented a welcome opportunity for us residents of a relatively non-ethnic enclave to enjoy some of the foods we have missed.  For three days, we ate bagels for breakfast, consumed exotic soups and salads for lunch, and gorged on all-things-Italian for dinner.  Finally, as our last evening approached, we had satisfied our need for pasta and pesto, and any food ending in “ini.”  It was time to sample the wide variety of choices for which Brooklyn is renowned.

“Do you like Thai?” asked our daughter, Kelly.

“We can find that in North Carolina,” said my wife.

“Okay, how do you feel about sushi?”

“No,” I said.  “I prefer my fish cooked.”

“Asian fusion?”

“Isn’t that passé?” I asked.  I didn’t really have any basis for the snarky question; I just wanted to sound like I was on top of the food scene.

The conversation proceeded to hit several more of the usual suspects of a gentrifying neighborhood.  I define that as a place where people in their thirties line up for at least an hour (baby carriage optional) in order to squeeze into as small and noisy a restaurant as possible, to pay as much money as possible, for as small a portion as possible, so that they can tell their friends they have “been there.”

Finally, Kelly must have sensed that she needed to stretch the bounds of culinary experience.  We may live in the hinterlands, after all, but we take pride in projecting some degree of sophistication when it comes to restaurants, even if that sophistication is largely manufactured.

“I bet you haven’t had Ethiopian cuisine,” she proclaimed.

“That sounds interesting,” said my wife.

Because Kelly’s fiancé was present, I did not mention that the first two words I considered when I heard “Ethiopian cuisine” were “famine” and “starvation.”  I am glad I did not, since such a comment would be crass; it is only for the sake of authorial integrity that I acknowledge the thought crossed my mind.  For some reason, everyone looked at me.

“I’m up for it,” I said, somewhat defensively. “What is it like?”

“Well,” Kelly said, “it can resemble baby food…”

I involuntarily raised an eyebrow.

“…but it’s really tasty.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Sounds great.”   I battened down both eyebrows and any other facial expression.

“We have to get there by five-thirty,” she warned.

“Dinner at five-thirty?”

“Otherwise, the line will be too long,” she explained.  “They don’t take reservations.”

It struck me as wildly improbable there would be a long line for pureed dinner but, as any parent knows, it is best to defer to one’s adult child on most subjects.  One has to save being disagreeable for important issues.  (Doubtless there are some stories there….)

After some hurried preparations, we walked several blocks to the small Ethiopian establishment.  I was impressed to see only one of its twelve tables was available.  Kelly was right; it was popular.  The other patrons represented the melting pot of Brooklyn society.  They were nearly shouting to be heard.  Snippets of heartfelt opinions on organic farmers markets, nursery school waiting lists, art exhibitions and real estate prices were in the air.

“Everyone is so earnest,” said my wife.  “They look like diverse and interesting people.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “but they probably don’t know a thing about ACC basketball.”

We were seated in a relatively quiet corner, and there were no dishes or silverware on our table.

“We don’t have any…” I began, but then noticed that every table was devoid of utensils.

“You eat with your fingers,” said Kelly.

“Do we get plates?” I asked, undaunted, but trying to recall everything I had touched in the last half hour.

“No,” she said.  “They will put all the food on one board in the middle of the table and we sop it up.”

“Sop?  I’ve never been much of a sopper.”

“Yes,” she said.  “They give you a big piece of pancake-like bread.  It’s sort of spongy and you break off pieces and… you grab the food with it.  It’s called injera.”

I looked down at the menu.  It would not be good to be born a goat in Ethiopia.  After a bit of debate among the ladies, we chose four items that approximated lentils with goat, spices with goat, beans with goat and a vegetarian amalgam of lentils, spices and beans.  I looked at the people communally pushing and smushing their food at the neighboring table and was relieved that all of us were healthy.

The waiter brought our drinks and we talked about the highlights of the visit, so far.  We’d walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and we’d seen the new sports arena.  We’d enjoyed Kelly and Laura’s new brownstone and its garden.  The waiter emerged from the kitchen with one large board, as Kelly had explained, and placed it in the middle of our table.  It carried a round portion of injera for each of us and our four entrees represented by four mounds of brown-red, food-related mush.  It was as though Jackson Pollack had taken over the kitchen.

Any resemblance to baby food, however, was dispelled with the first taste.  I expected, at some point, to request extra napkins due my inexpertness in mastering sopping.  But I did not entirely foresee the sweat that emerged from every pore on my body as a result of the spices.  Much hilarity ensued as I appeared to have just emerged from a shower.

“This is quite a business model,” I noted.  “No table cloth, no silverware, no plates, just lots of napkins. I’d like to open a franchise.  I’ll call it ‘Splat.’”

“Do you like it?” they all asked me.

“It’s definitely flavorful,” I said.  And I was not lying.  The tastes were stimulating and far different from anything else I had eaten.

“Would you eat Ethiopian again?” asked my wife.

I looked down at my dirty fingers and felt my sweating forehead.  Was this the sort of experience I would want to repeat?

“I’m not sure,” I replied, “but I admit the choice was good.  I am far more likely to remember my Ethiopian meal for the rest of my life than any other restaurant we might have chosen.”

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