Although I'd eaten Ethiopian food several times before at Awash, I was mystified about how to tackle the lunch special of lamb stew I was recently presented with. I knew Ethiopian fare was finger food, that the servers didn't bring a knife and fork unless so requested. I knew the "utensil" of choice for eating Ethiopian cuisine is torn-off segments of the flatbread known as injera. But every time I tried to scoop a few leaves of the collard greens or a hunk of the meat out of their bowl, the spongy injera became saturated with broth and promptly disintegrated between my fingers. And what to do about the fact that the lamb flesh doggedly clung to its bones? I wasn't supposed to just pick up a bone and gnaw off the meat like some cave dweller ... or was I?
The waitress, noticing my perplexity in the uncrowded restaurant, hurried over and inquired as to how I was doing. With studied casualness, I asked what was the best way to eat the stew. She quickly spooned a small mound of it onto my plate. Aha, that's why I was given a big, empty plate draped with a layer of injera. The bread soaked up the broth from the greens, making them suitable for consuming with scraps of another piece of injera. "And the meat," I asked her. "Should I just pick up the pieces with my fingers and ... ?" I gestured to make my meaning clear. The waitress nodded. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, I picked up a bone and gnawed. After glancing over my shoulder a second time, I even sucked the marrow out of a disc of leg bone.
Once tackled with the teeth, the tender lamb meat fell off the bone readily. Not that these pieces of lamb were like fried chicken, that is, a bone surrounded by a generous quantity of meat. These morsels were 80 percent bone. I suspect they were left over from another lamb dish and had been tossed together into a stew much the same way many Christmas turkey carcasses have wound up in a soup the past two weeks.
Still, in spite of the occasional puzzle posed by unfamiliar eating methods, dining at Awash feels homey in other ways besides the creative use of leftovers. There's the familiar and friendly face of the solitary waitress, who's been the same on all of my visits; there's the sharing with your friends of all the dishes at the table; there's the paint job on the walls, which could use a bit of sprucing up (I'm sure I must have had an Easter dress that same shade of pale pink when I was little); there's the low hum of the television in the next room; there's the head cook who, like Mom, is also the owner of the place. Only here, there's no one telling the kids to keep their fingers out of the food.
Digging into a combination plate at Awash is like playing with a palette of finger paints. Little hillocks of ocher (kik alecha, or seasoned split peas), taupe (azifa, or lentils with jalapeno) and burnt sienna (anything seasoned with the red pepper berbere) leap out from their buff-colored background of an injera-lined platter. The dishes' flavors are as multifarious as their hues. From the gentle, smoky kik alecha to the tart, snappy azifa to the barbecuey beef tibs wot, whose berbere sauce packs a slow burn, the offerings complement each other well, each sturdily holding its own next to its neighbor. And anchoring the opposing corners of the injera are the side dish salads that are there to refine and cleanse the palate between bites of the hard-core stuff: perhaps a cabbage salad, sharp and orange with tomatoes, or a homemade cottage cheese, snowy and finely curded, whose milky astringency serves the same cooling purpose as raita in Indian cuisine.
The plate of injera that accompanies every meal looks like something I'd want to lie down on for a nap. These elastically pliant, coin-thin sponges are made from tef, a native Ethiopian grain resembling millet, and are presented folded into quarters and stacked four or five deep. Open up one of these steaming, putty-colored squares and you'll find an underside as bubbly as baby Swiss cheese. The bubbles come from fermentation of the tef flour, a process -- similar to that used for sourdough bread -- by which a permanent starter is created. The fermenting process also reveals itself in the bread's slightly tangy flavor. Awash's owner, Amsale Taye, is proud of the fact that she goes the extra mile and uses only tef flour in her injera. Its procurement from an Ethiopian grower transplanted to Michigan, she explains, is troublesome and expensive. For that reason, notes Taye, other Ethiopian restaurants sometimes use a mixture of wheat and tef flours for their injera. But for her, only pure tef will do.
Another Ethiopian basic, also obtainable from only a few U.S. suppliers, among them the Michigan source, is the spunky red pepper berbere. Between the pepper's harvest and its readiness for use as a powder stretches a six-month process of drying and curing. At Awash, the powdered berbere is blended with red wine, garlic and ginger, and appears, according to Taye, in "all the spicy dishes."
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One of those dishes not included on the meat combination platter (there's also a vegetarian rendition) is doro wot, a stew of whole chicken pieces whose base is a deliciously messy vermilion mush into which has been tossed a hard-boiled egg. At the other end of the taste, color and texture spectrum is minchet abish alich. Composed of flecks of lean ground beef, chartreuse with turmeric and jolted into a high-octane heat by full-length jalapeo wedges, the minchet abish alich is currently available only at lunch. My table decided that this dish, when shared by two people and coupled with a vegetarian combo platter, constitutes the perfect meal.
At Awash, the perfect meal always ends with the supremely civilized ritual of a tray of steaming, pristinely white finger towels (I wish every restaurant did this). And it also has to include the Ethio coffee, which the menu parenthetically and intriguingly describes as including a "ceremony for two." I won't spoil the pleasure by giving away the little mystery behind the coffee service, but it's distinctly worth a try. It's all part of the simultaneously exotic and homey dining experience Awash manages to create.
Awash Ethiopian Restaurant and Cafe, 6065 Bissonnet, 668-5961.
Awash: meat combination plate, $7.95; vegetarian combination plate, $6.25; minchet abish alich, $3.50; Ethio coffee, $3.