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Order Smarter at Ethiopian Restaurants

Rachel Tepper

Every cuisine has its most famous dishes, every diner her go-to dish. But even your beloved pad Thai/cheese enchiladas/Alaska roll can get a little tired. Break out of that ordering rut with the help of smartypants experts who know all the menu’s secret tricks and gems.

Order Smarter at Ethiopian Restaurants

Photo credit: Shea Evans/StockFood

Love the complex spices of Indian food but can’t stand the heat? Consider equally fragrant, less fiery Ethiopian cuisine.

We’re lucky that the United States is home to the largest Ethiopian population in the world outside of Ethiopia. Most American Ethiopians live in Washington, D.C., which perhaps explains why the heavily-spiced African cuisine is so beloved a fixture on that city’s food scene. But elsewhere, the cuisine isn’t yet quite as popular as, say, those of China and Mexico.

But there’s no need to worry about feeling lost at an Ethiopian restaurant. We asked Harry Kloman, author of ”Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.,” to help us navigate how to order:

Roll with a big group. There’s no shame in dining alone, but doing so at an Ethiopian restaurant may put you at a culinary disadvantage. “Meals are shared, and if you go with even two people, you get to sample more dishes,” Kloman advised. The more diners, the better, he said.

Don’t turn your nose up at vegetables you typically dislike. Even those with aversions to familiar vegetables like carrots, collard greens, and lentils may be pleasantly surprised by the Ethiopian version. “The way that they prepare these [vegetable] stews is unlike anything that you’ve seen,” Kloman said, thanks to spices like allspice, fenugreek, black cardamom, and berbere. ”It really is a very important part of the cuisine.” Carnivores, be aware: “If all you do is stuff meat into your arteries, don’t bother with Ethiopian.”

Fear not the raw meat. That said, this cuisine doesn’t shun meat entirely. ”Raw meat is beloved by Ethiopians,” Kloman said. Order kitfo, a dish of raw ground beef seasoned with cardamom, butter, and a type of ground red pepper called mitmita. Sometimes kitfo is served partially or fully cooked, but steer clear of these varieties because “you’ll never see an Ethiopian eat it that way.”

Get the combination platter. Although getting a combination platter may spell disaster at a greasy spoon Chinese restaurant, it’s advisable in Ethiopian restaurants. “That’s how Ethiopians eat,” Kloman explained. “They’ll have a variety of dishes on the tables. It’s beneficial for you, because you’re getting to taste more of the cuisine.” A typical vegetarian combination plate, for instance, might include yekik alicha (yellow split peas in turmeric sauce), shiro (spiced chickpea spread), misir wat (spiced red lentils), and much, much more.

Know your injera. Injera is the slightly-sour, spongy flatbread upon which Ethiopian stews are plated, and it’s also used in place of utensils. ”Injera should be warm or room temperature—if it’s cold, send it back,” Kloman said. “It should also be moist and spongy, not dry or stiff.”

Traditionally, injera is made with teff, a nutty gluten-free North African cereal grain. But teff flour can be costly, and Kloman said many American Ethiopian restaurants swap out up to half a recipe’s required teff with less expensive flours made using wheat or barley. This can be tricky for celiacs or those on gluten-free diets, and Kloman recommends asking a waiter to confirm the injera's contents with a chef.

Tip back some tej. One of the most traditional things to drink alongside your meal is tej, an Ethiopian wine made of fermented honey. Although a handful of American wineries make tej, Kloman recommends asking a server for Nigest, which is made by Addis Adaba-based Awash Winery. (The taste may not be for everyone; Nigest’s flavor has been described as sweet with “hints of spiciness [and] a syrupy aftertaste.”)

Alternatively, Kloman recommends asking if a restaurant makes its own tej. “If you can get that, great. It’s more like tej that you’ll get in Ethiopia.” The one downside of homemade tej? Many restaurants don’t exactly have the licenses to produce alcohol on premises. “Technically, it’s illegal,” Kloman concedes. Proceed with caution.

Do the coffee ceremony. ”Coffee is a point of cultural pride for Ethiopians, because they gave coffee to the world,” Kloman said. Traditionally, coffee ceremonies—which involves the ritualized roasting, brewing, grinding, and brewing of coffee right in front of you—can stretch for hours. Not all restaurants offer the coffee ceremony, but those that do truncate it to a manageable five to 10 minutes. “Ethiopian coffee is very dark and very rich,” Kloman said, which makes it a particularly satisfying end to a meal.

The best part of Ethiopian dining, according to Kloman? Restaurateurs don’t mind if you linger: Long meals with flowing conversation are encouraged. So block off a good three hours to enjoy that dinner properly.