Try one of New Jersey’s five Ethiopian restaurants if you’re an ethnic food fan looking for something different.
Flavorful and fun to eat, if you’ve never tried Ethiopian before, you’re in for a treat. Injera – a spongy, sourdough crepe made from tef flour – is the tangy centerpiece of the meal. A pizza-shaped injera serves as the platter for everything else. Entrees typically come with at least two vegetarian sides. Each portion is served on a sinlge injera platter. Injeras are always served on the side as a handy way to scoop up your food. Rip off a piece and dig in. Using your hands for an entire meal is always a big hit with kids, as long as they don’t mind getting their fingers dirty. (Use only your right hand if you want to eat the customary way.)
Featuring both meat and vegetarian dishes, Ethiopian food can be mild or as spicy as you like, depending on the sauce - Berbere (red peppers with cardamom, basil and spices – classic and always spicy), Awaz (red pepper with garlic and onion – a little spicy) and Mitmitta (red pepper with cardamom – less spicy). For an appetizer, try Sambusas – the Ethiopian “empanada” or “samosa” – usually stuffed with spicy beef or lentils. Ethiopian menus feature meats (beef, lamb, chicken), fish and vegetables prepared as stews – wats (or “wot”) (spicy) and alechas (mild). The stews are thickened with an herbed clarified butter called niter kibbeh. Common dishes are Doro Wot, chicken stew, typically with hard boiled egg and berbere sauce, and Misir Wot – spicy lentils. For grilled or sauteed meats and vegetables, order tibs, like Yebeg Tibs (sauteed lamb cubes). For a twist on steak tartare, try the Ethiopian version, Kitfo, raw beef mixed with kibbeh one of the red pepper sauces. End your feast with excellent Ethiopian coffee or be adventurous and order tej, a fermented honey mead.
A traditional Ethiopian table (mesob) resembles a tall hourglass-shaped basket, surrounded by low woven chairs. In New Jersey, Mesob, Lalibela and Harrar Cafe all have regular tables. New Brunswick’s Makeda has two dining rooms – one with the traditional mesobs and stools, one with formal tables and chairs.
Ethiopia straddles the Horn of Africa between Somalia and Eritrea, formerly the Ethiopian territory touching the Red Sea. Eritrean cuisine varies slightly from Ethiopian, I’m told, with some Italian colonial influences on the menu. Modern Ethiopia borders Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation, to the West. A major trade route for thousands of years and home of the ancient Abyssinians, Ethiopian food is a truly historic cuisine.
There aren’t many places you can find Ethiopian food. New Jersey’s Ethiopian community is small compared to other immigrant groups. There are established Ethiopian communities in Jersey City, East Orange and East Brunswick. I’ve only found five Ethiopian restaurants in New Jersey so far: two within a few blocks of one another in South Orange, one nearby in Montclair, one in New Brunswick, and a Dominican restaurant in Long Branch whose Ethiopian owner serves an Ethiopian menu on weekends. New Jersey is well-represented, considering there are only 12 Ethiopian restaurants in New York City. I’ve tried three of the five, and look forward to eating at Makeda and Ada’s soon. There might be others in the beautiful Garden State. If you find them, let EthnicNJ know. I’ll add them to the list, and to the map.