In college I worked a part time job on the corner of Cedar and Riverside Avenues above an Ethiopian Restaurant called Odaa. Saturday mornings while I worked upstairs, the restaurant made berbere, a spicy condiment of spices and chilis that accompanies Ethiopian food. It was an old building and ventilation was poor. At first the smells were unique and intriguing. I was 20 years old and dreams of wandering through exotic markets and other adventures in Ethiopia were a sure part of a future with no limits. In reality, pretty soon I was sick of smelling like berbere all day. I still have yet to travel there but recently finished three consecutive books on Ethiopia and was thinking a lot about the culture, history and food (well, I always think a lot about food.)
My co-conspirator in the Ethopian book-a-thon and ventured to Fasika, an Ethiopian Restaurant near Snelling and University in St. Paul. It was Friday night and the restaurant was full of sights, smells, sounds and people of Ethiopia. A young boy of about 8 or 9 was perched at the bar near us in front of a braided wicker basket full of mints intended for guest checks. He engaged anyone who would look at him with a quick smile and enormous brown eyes. His cute tight-jeaned auntie was waiting tables and he was to bide his time until his mom got off of work at the braid shop across the street. Someone moved the basket of candy to the other end of the bar and soon his bright beautiful face fell and he fidgeted and auntie was getting short with him in her frenzy to keep up with her work as one large table soccer players replaced another. The restaurant teemed with beautiful brown eyed men. Auntie had more important work than babysitting. So I made a new friend and gave him my iPhone to play Angry Birds until we left.
Initially we ordered two vegetarian sample plates. When I saw a huge platter carried to an adjacent table, I told our server to bring us one to split, promising if we were still hungry we’d get more. A large pizza plate arrived covered with injeera, the traditional bread. Atop the bread were scoops of a variety of lentils cooked in spices, chopped greens, spiced potatoes, tender marinated beets and of course, berbere. Pieces of injeera are used to pick up the morsels instead of silverware. If you like the kind of food that is redolent with complex spices and eating with your hands (as I do), the food is heaven. Injeera is weird. I like it but it’s weird. If you’ve never had it, it’s a damp, pourous, heavy, thin bread that makes me think of skin. When it’s made with the ancient grain, teff, as this was, it’s slightly sour. A note of caution: the bread seems to expand in your stomach. I was ravenous and my co-conspirator is not a shy eater either, but suddenly we were stuffed and getting stuffed-er by the minute.
When we left we took a walk around the block to aid digestion. Passing Big Vs we contemplated stopping for a beer but the injeera had expanded to a prohibitive point. Rounding the corner, a homeless woman asked us for change for food so my companion offered her his Styrofoam container of leftovers. She opened it, took a sniff, and handed it back. Maybe she wasn’t that hungry. Maybe Ethiopian food is an acquired taste. And if you acquire it, you’ll be rewarded with the gorgeous spices and rich textures that make this a truly unique and wonderful cuisine. Once again, I’m submerged in a world of complex spices, gorgeous brown eyes, pulsing traditional sound and smells, and thinking a trip to Ethiopia is still in my future.