This is part of a weekly series in which reporter Aparita Bhandari explores how to eat the different cuisines that make up Toronto’s diverse culinary landscape.
The best way to describe a traditional Ethiopian meal is a feast. After all, tradition calls for eating the food communally, with family and friends sharing a large platter of the staples that make up this cuisine. And so, the meal is a literal feast, as well as a feast for the eyes and palate.
When you’re eating off of the same plate as everyone else and using your hands, things could get tricky. Who goes first? Does everyone wait their turn? Do you use your left hand, right hand — maybe both?
The idea behind eating from the same plate illustrates the deep ties that bind family and friends, Hagos says.
“It’s to show our love for each other,” she says.
After we sit down at our table, owner and chef Enat Gulelat arrives with a large platter covered with food. It’s covered in injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread made with teff flour (the grain is particular to Ethiopia). Injera is a spongy bread with a slight sour taste. A little tricky to handle, injera adds texture and a measure of tang to the meal. On top are heaps of doro wat (chicken stew), misir (spiced lentils), kitfo (steak tartare), ayib (homemade cottage cheese), gomen (greens), key wot (beef stew), shiro (stew made from ground chickpeas and Ethiopian spices) and salad. There’s also an additional dish of cha cha tibs (sautéed lamb short ribs) and condiments including awaze (hot sauce made from berbere spice blend) and mitmita (a spicy pepper blend in powder form). The food is not particularly spicy in itself, but the condiments add a pleasant kick to the meal.
There’s so much here, you could feed a crowd and still have leftovers. And there’s something for every sensitive eater — that includes vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free types (teff is said to be gluten-free).
“You should know how to do this,” Hagos says to me, laughing, demonstrating her method to rip and dip with her right hand. “Sometimes, I tell people to just throw the ripped portion of injera on top of the vegetables or meat and then pick it up.”
Even though I often eat Indian food with my hands, using pieces of roti as a scoop, it took me a few tries to get the hang of the Ethiopian method because of injera’s texture — floppier than a roti — but I had it down on the third try.
The No.1 rule, according to Hagos? “No licking your fingers. That’s just self-explanatory. You don’t double dip. And we use our right hand to eat because the left hand is considered unclean.” (Traditionally, the left hand is used to aid in bodily functions such as cleaning your backside.)
You start by either eating the injera off of the platter and working your way in, or you can use the extra injera rolls that are often provided. You can use the condiments awaze and mitimita in a similar way to pickles, using them to add a bit of a zest.
In a display of love for a family member or friend, Ethiopians will sometimes feed each other, an act called “gursha.”
“It can be anyone, it doesn’t have to be romantic,” Hagos says. “Like a grandmother can feed a grandchild. Or you can feed your friend.”
Just remember not to let your teeth get in the way if someone wants to do it to you. “The person receiving the gursha should bite down on the food, not your hand,” Hagos says.
No meal is complete without Ethiopian coffee, she adds. Tradition dictates that the coffee is roasted in front of the guests, allowing diners to smell the coffee before it is prepared, with frankincense burning on the side as part of the coffee ceremony. The black brew is served in small cups alongside popcorn.
“Both serve as a palate cleanser,” Hagos says.
Lulled after stuffing yourself with all the food, the smell of frankincense and roasted coffee offers a pleasant pick-me-up. Unlike my expectations, the coffee has a rich taste, without any bitterness, and offers a smooth finish to a sumptuous meal.