Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween in Ethiopia

Last night I went out to an Ethiopian restaurant named Meskel on East 3rd Street near Avenue B. There I met my faithful dining partner Felix Hunger, who was dressed up for Halloween as a persnickety, fastidious foodie. I just wore my normal clothes, although we looked oddly similar. We've both been meaning to go to Meskel ever since we read the glowing New York Times review about a year ago, and neither of us was disappointed.

As you can see by clicking on and enlarging the image to the right, the menu is straightforward, listing several meat dishes and several veggie dishes, each richly spiced and served by the dollop. For the sake of variety, Felix and I shared two combo platters, one with meat and the other vegetarian.

My main attraction to Ethiopian food, besides the interesting spices, is the opportunity to eat with my hands. And that's where injera comes in, the spongy, slightly sour rolled bread that serves perfectly to pick up the food and to soak up the buttery sauces. During our meal, Felix asked me, "What is this made of? Is it wheat? Whole wheat? Buckwheat?" Turns out it's not made of wheat at all, but an ancient grain called teff. Teff is actually the tiny seed of a grass called Eragrostis tef and is an important staple in northeastern Africa.

According to the Times review, the cook at Merkel makes the teff dough by hand, letting it sit for a time to ferment slightly, giving it that sour edge. The dough is then cooked like a pancake on a grill.

The meal was brought out very quickly and served on a single platter. We ate by the window as Halloween revelers passed by in groups, each more outlandish than the last. As you can see, there was a little of everything on the plate, but the stand-out favorite was the Tibs Wat, at the bottom right of the photo. Tibs Wat is prime beef pan-cooked with berbere, the essential Ethiopian spice paste consisting of things like chili, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, coriander, cloves, allspice, fenugreek, ajowan and God knows what else.

The other dishes weren't bad either, especially the lentil purée called Miser Alecha. The collard greens, called Gomen, were the weak link and far too salty.

It didn't look like much food when we started, but we were certainly stuffed by the end. Must be that injera bread, which we finished to the last morsel.

On the way home, I saw more Halloween costumes on the subway. I struck up a conversation with two kids who had gone to considerable trouble making their outfits. I asked them if they were meant to be dressed up as Banquo and Lucia di Lammermoor, but all I got were these blank expressions.


Marc said...

I've been eating Ethiopian and Eritrean food a lot more often this past year. I need to start doing so with more people. When it's just a couple we always resort, like you did, to the two combo plates, one meat and one veggie. Great stuff, of course, but there's always so much more on the menu. The teff bread makes a lot of sense here in sourdough-friendly San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

hey Mr. Fooditude -- Thanks for the post. I've never heard of "ajowan" before. Is that something you were familiar with or have cooked with?

Jeffrey Stock said...

Thanks for the question. As a matter of fact, I have used it before in some Indian-style breads. Very fragrant. Smells almost exactly like thyme. Also spelled ajwain or referred to as Bishop's weed.