#300, Try 3 new cuisines, 1/3
I am a food enthusiast, but I would offer to throw myself into a fiery pit before I would call myself a “foodie”. In fact, merely typing the word foodie just now gave way to an unattractive tic.
I have a working knowledge of food. I have graduated from cooking school, but I’m not a chef. I have been around enough talented food writers to appreciate them, but I also realize that I’m not qualified to call myself one, even now while I am in the act of writing about food. Still I reject “foodie”, because my interest delves deeper than salacious Instagram photos or the momentary devotion to a flash-in-the-pan celebrity chef.
My relationship with food is more serious and soulful than any word that could be muttered by a cross toddler pointing her chubby finger at a distant Cheerio.
I am a lover of food. I’m interested in everything it touches- how it’s grown, how people prepare it, how it has evolved through history, how it shapes a culture, and how it is celebrated in every pocket of the world. I see art in its colors and shapes and textures. I hear music in the sizzle, and steam, and scream when pans hit flame. Food stories, for me, have been some of the most compelling works of literature that I have had the occasion to read.
So, here is the rub, and one I’m not proud to divulge. Having declared myself a food lover, I generally eat the same ten things– over and over again.
I’m not unusual. I once heard the illustrious Anne Willan, say that most people generally eat the same ten meals, with minor variations, whether they are foodies or not.
I have lots of excuses for my narrow diet. I tell myself that my kids have limited palates, or I perceive that my husband wouldn’t be interested in trying something new, but the truth is- I just haven’t branched out as much as I could have. And I like what I like.
Not long ago, I tried Korean BBQ for the first time. I avoided including that experience here in the blog, because I’ve lived in Los Angeles for so many years that it is unconscionable that I couldn’t put my bean and cheese burrito down long enough to explore one of our regional mainstays.
The short version of that story is… I liked Korean BBQ. I was lucky enough to be given a tour through the menu by a Korean American woman who really knows her bulgogi. Thanks, Sharon.
But the experience left me unsettled.
Flashing before my eyes, I began to see all the untried ethnic cuisines of Los Angeles, scurrying by on a conveyer belt, like plates in a dream, speeding away from me. And there I stood, frozen in place, clutching my cold burrito and watching steaming dishes fly on to the tables and in to the lives of adventurous people everywhere.
This is how list item #300 came to be. I am venturing out. If this is my year of yes, I must make the effort to move beyond my pantry.
First stop: Little Ethiopia, probably because it sounds the most exotic to me.
I’ve never eaten Ethiopian food. The truth is, I had to look at a map to see where Ethiopia is.
Once I did that, I opened Marcus Samuelsson’s book, Soul of a New Cuisine. It’s a beautiful book, and it gave me an introduction into the cuisine of his birthplace and into the spices and dishes of East Africa.
I started googling “Ethiopian food near me”. I found a few restaurants in Little Ethiopia, a block-long section of Fairfax Boulevard in the Mid-Wilshire district of Central Los Angeles. (Bill Esparza, breaks the neighborhood down perfectly in this 2013 article.)
In the end, I did a Yelp comparison of the restaurants on Fairfax and decided to try the place with a name I could pronounce and remember– it was also called Little Ethiopia.
We found parking on the street and stepped inside. There were three gentlemen at a table, but they were the only guests present. We sat ourselves at a small table. A woman gave us menus and we stared at all the foreign words and read their translations. When the woman returned, I asked for advice and we ended up ordering a combination platter.
First, we received a basket of injera.
Injera is a spongy flatbread that is served cold. It is made from teff flour, and yogurt, and a sourdough starter. It ferments for three days which gives it its sour flavor. Ours came in a basket, rolled up like newspapers.
Afterward, our hostess brought the combination plate we ordered. It was a large round platter scented with unfamiliar spices.
(This is not the best photo, you can see better representations on the Bill Esparza link above.) The platter is about 16 inches in diameter, much larger than it appears in this photo.
The dish is arranged by placing a large injera on the platter. Next, two stews, sega wot (slow cooked beef with red pepper sauce) and alicha wot ( curried lamb), are placed in the center of the platter. Around the perimeter are green beans, salad, cabbage, collard greens, red lentils and yellow split peas.
You are encouraged to eat the food using injera instead of forks and knives. You tear the injera in pieces and pinch the food between it, keeping your hands clean in the process.
The beef, lamb, vegetables, and legumes all had the depth of flavor that comes from long, slow cooking and the sourness of the injera lent a contrasting brightness. The dishes were earthy and rather mild, and I decided that if I returned I would ask for the level of spiciness that Ethiopian nationals are served.
We did not try the doro wot, the most famous dish of Ethiopia, which consists of two chicken legs and a hardboiled egg in a red pepper stew. We chose the combination platter instead, because it offered a larger variety of side dishes.
We did use forks, but we ate nearly everything, enjoying even the sodden pieces of injera which had soaked up the liquids and sauces of the foods displayed on them.
We were offered dessert and we declined.
We asked for coffee. I had seen an Ethiopian coffee ceremony online that had intrigued me and I described it to my friend. We waited a good while, but when the coffee was served, there was no ceremony– just two white cups and an offer of milk. I take my coffee black so I refused the milk, and distractedly took a sip.
With that first taste, everything in the room went out of focus. There was silence. Only the cup was sharp and present. The coffee and I were alone in the universe. I pressed the cup to my lips and it was just me and a hot, rich, chocolatey, floral, perfumed concoction that made each cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted seem like a fraud. Here was the fluid soul of Africa, full of secrets and earth and primal wisdom. Inside my cup swirled the bones and blood and wishes of ancient humans, extinct animals, and forgotten trees. I felt the howls of wolves and the thump of baboons inside my chest like the beats of a distant drum. With each sip, I explored the terrain. I felt the breath of the world’s wildest continent upon my face.
For me, it was perfect.
It was dark and strong like my usual daily brew, but it wasn’t bitter and it didn’t make my pulse race or my stomach ache. It didn’t even keep me awake, though I drank it well after my normal caffeine cut-off hour.
I finished my coffee and resisted the urge to slide my finger along the inside of the cup and rub it into my gums like a cocaine addict in an 80s film. Instead, I petitioned our hostess if I might make a new home in her kitchen. She gave me the small smile that one might use to placate a chatty child while actually on the phone in a different conversation, and then she departed, taking my cup with her.
As we were leaving, I asked the three men at the table if I might take their picture. I had liked the look of them, but it took me awhile to get up the nerve to ask them. They were kind and friendly (always alarming in Los Angeles) and told us that we should have spoken to them before we ordered our meal, so that they might give us pointers. Their names were Girma, Hilu, and the man on the right said his name would be too complicated for us to pronounce, so we should just use his initials, which of course I have promptly forgotten.
The men were warm and hospitable, and I was reminded that Marcus Samuelsson had described the people of Ethiopia in very similar words. Our new friends told us that we should come again and they would teach us how to eat without a knife and fork, the Ethiopian way.
I appreciated the offer, but what I really needed to know is how to have that coffee everyday for the rest of my life. There are answers in that coffee to questions I haven’t even dreamed up yet.
One thing is clear, though. There is definitely room in my life for more than ten menu items, and I am looking forward to the process of expansion.
301 days to go!