At the base of all Ethiopian food – literally – is injera, a spongy bread that resembles an immense pancake. (Indeed, injera is cooked like a pancake.) It is made from teff, the world’s smallest cereal grain. Whatever food you order, injera will serve as the platform, covering the bottom of a large round platter, the various stews grouped on top of it.
Stews, called wat, are the most common dishes. These might include variations of beef or chicken, but pork is never served. There are a few seafood selections on Nile’s menu, but Ethiopia is a landlocked country and seafood dishes are not common. Vegetarian wat versions feature lentils or split peas.
Ethiopian restaurants are wonderful places for vegetarians to dine as meatless meals are a big part of the country’s cultural heritage. About half of Ethiopia’s population is Muslim and the other half is comprised of Christians who observe nearly 200 days of fasting annually during which meat, poultry and dairy products may not be consumed.
Most wat include finely chopped onions and berbere, a red paste that might be compared to an Indian curry in that it is made with myriad spices and can be quite hot. Less spicy foods, called alicha, can be found on an Ethiopian menu but I wouldn’t call them mild – they’re still infused with onion, garlic and green pepper and have multiple layers of flavors.
At Nile, the vegetarian kik alicha ($10.95) was one of my favorites. It featured yellow split peas blended with onions and green peppers seasoned with a touch of garlic.
Doro wat ($12.95), something of a national dish, had small pieces of chicken blended with berbere and onions and served with a whole hard-boiled egg. Gored gored ($12.95), another well-known dish, had cubes of beef seasoned with red peppers, mitmita (another hot blend of spices) and butter.
Nile serves its own tej, a wine made from honey. It’s a cloudy, pale yellow liquid with a taste that is just a tad bitter, despite the honey base. It is presented in a small bulb with a narrow neck that looks like it is the decanter. But you drink the wine from this vessel, holding it between your first and second fingers with your palm up.
Coffee is Ethiopia’s top commodity and the coffee ceremony is a big part of a traditional meal. The coffee service area occupies a space in the front of the dining room. The whole beans are roasted in a small metal saucepan while incense burns nearby. When the beans are roasted the pan is brought to the table and waved about so the guests can enjoy the aroma. Once the beans are ground and brewed, the coffee is poured from a clay pot called a jebena into small handleless cups. It’s a very strong brew with a chewy texture and an aroma that is earthy and slightly charred. Desserts are not a part of a traditional Ethiopian menu.
I always thought one of the problems with past Ethiopian restaurants was their choice of location. Nile should do well in this location, at least with the influx of tourists who are usually up to trying something new. The question is whether locals will swallow their pride in order to swallow some wonderful Ethiopian food.