For years, Ethiopian dishes were notoriously absent from ?the collective Western New York restaurant menu.
That ended this year, when three Ethiopian restaurants opened inside the city limits within six months.
So here is a beginner's guide – call it Ethiopian 101 – to arm the timid, the curious and the puzzled with enough information to ?feel comfortable ordering Ethiopian food.
Ethiopian cuisine was born at the intersection of Arabian and African cultures, further imbued with spices borne by merchants traversing Ethiopia's historic routes between Europe and the Far East.
That accident of geography exposed Ethiopian cooks to fragrant ginger from Asia, fiery chiles from Portugal and spices such as ?cardamom, coriander and nutmeg from India.
The result is a cuisine that might be compared to some Indian dishes, but with many of its own distinguishing features. One is the
ubiquity of injera, a sourdough-pancake-like bread made from teff, an indigenous Ethiopian grain. Injera is served with practically every meal, and Ethiopians traditionally use pieces of injera, instead of forks and spoons, to pick up bites of stews, stir-fry and other dishes.
That does not mean you have to eat Ethiopian food with your hands – restaurants will provide silverware on request. If you do eat with your hands, ask for moist towlettes to clean your fingers.
Plenty of people ask for silverware at first, said Abba Biya of Lucy Ethiopian Cuisine, 388 Amherst St. "Now people, when they come back, they eat with their hands. They don't need any spoon or fork. They're quick learners."
The best way for beginners to Ethiopian food to start exploring the cuisine is through combination platters. Typically, the platter will include portions of four to 10 dishes in three formats: meat, vegetables, or mixed, for one person or two. Single dishes generally run $6 to $12, while combos run $8 to $12.
So the first decision facing potential customers is: Do I want meat?
Vegetarians and vegans will have made that decision already, and they will find much to enjoy about Ethiopian cuisine. Because Ethiopia is home to Islamic and Christian communities that abstain from eating meat during religious fasting periods, its cooks have developed dishes that get their heartiness and flavor from vegetable sources, including beans, lentils, grains and greens.
Most of the vegetarian options are vegan, too, not employing butter, eggs or other dairy products. "We have fasting time in Ethiopia – no meat, no dairy," said Genet Wasse of Mike's American and Ethiopian Cuisine, 3355 Bailey Ave., where signs in the windows proclaim "Vegan Friendly."
Biya of Lucy's said it didn't take long for vegans to catch on to Ethiopian food. "A lot of my customers are vegan – I'd say 60 to 65 percent." Collard greens, red lentils, pureed yellow split peas, braised carrots and potatoes, cabbage, ground chickpeas and cracked wheat are classics. Shiro wot is a sort of ground chickpea curry, and atkilk wot is stewed potatoes, carrots, cabbage. (Wot means sauce in Amharic, the Ethiopian language).
But meat – beef, chicken and lamb – makes up the other side of the Ethiopian menu. Doro wot is a well-known Ethiopian chicken dish made with bone-in chicken and hard-boiled eggs. Lamb tibs and beef tibs are pieces of meat sauteed with onions, peppers and garlic.
Kitfo is a popular Ethiopian beef dish with ground lean beef dressed in spiced clarified butter, chile, cardamom and other spices. In Ethiopia, the meat is generally served raw, but it can be partly cooked or well-done, too, and servers should ask which version you prefer. Iman Gatur said at his restaurant, Gatur's Ethiopian Cuisine, 69 Allen St., kitfo is served fully cooked by default.
Owners of all three Buffalo restaurants said they ground their kitfo beef themselves after carefully trimming out fat. Kitfo is sometimes accompanied by a sprinkling of mit-mita, a spicy brick-red mixture of chile, cardamom, cloves, salt, and possibly more spices, to amplify its flavors. Another regular accompaniment in meat combination platters is housemade fresh cheese, which can help defuse the heat of spicy servings.
The second decision is: spicy or not?
Talk to servers about your spice level needs. Buffalonians should be used to this; Ethiopian food is generally offered in gradations of heat, just like most chicken wing menus.
There are plenty of mild choices on both meat and vegetarian sides of the menu. Some dishes come in spicy and non-spicy versions, while some of the long-cooked stews, like doro wot, tend to come only one way.
Any primer on Ethiopian food must include coffee, which is another Ethiopian specialty.
"In Ethiopia, you don't simply pour coffee from the machine and drink it," said Belete Mubratu of Mike's. "Traditionally, you have to call neighbors. You don't drink coffee by yourself. That is a place where people share thoughts, information, communicate."
Now things are changing, Mubratu allows. "It might not be typical any more."
Ethiopian coffee is simmered in a pot and served sweetened in small cups, much like Turkish coffee.
Ordering it may spark a coffee ceremony, depending on how busy the proprietor is. Incense is lit, coffee beans are ground and brewed, and the resulting brew is poured into waiting cups from a distance, in a high arc. Sit back and enjoy another taste of Ethiopian culture.
Buffalo has gone from 0 to 3 Ethiopian restaurants in less than a year, in different parts of town. Most menu items range from about $6 to $12. Here's where to find them:
Lucy Ethiopian Cuisine (388 Amherst St., 877-5829) opened in March in Black Rock, at the corner of Grant and Amherst streets. It has about 20 seats, and is run by Abba Biya and his wife, Nama. The couple previously ran a small Ethiopian restaurant in Toronto. Unlike the other Ethiopian places, Lucy offers breakfast. Like the others, it hasn't established a website with a menu yet, but Biya said he is working on it.
The second, Mike's American and Ethiopian Cuisine (3355 Bailey Ave., 835-5636) opened June 1 in a longtime former sub shop two blocks south of the University at Buffalo's South Campus. You can still get the famed "Steak in the Hood" sandwich here, but now there's an entire Ethiopian menu, too. (Still no air conditioning, though.) It is run by Genet Wasse, who formerly operated a restaurant in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. She is assisted by her husband, Belete Mebratu, an associate professor at Medaille College, and their son Daniel and other family members.
Gatur's Ethiopian Cuisine (69 Allen St., 881-1832) is the newest and biggest of the three, at 35 seats. It opened last week in the space formerly occupied by Falafel Bar and Nadia's Taste of Soul. Gatur's is run by the nine children of the Gatur family, led by their mother, Fathia Abdi. Daughter and manager Iman Gatur said family members have never run a restaurant before, but since emigrating in 2001, "we've been dreaming about it the whole time."