Our hostess spoons frankincense resin over a red-hot charcoal briquette in the ceremonial burner on our table, and a cloud of fragrant smoke blooms into the air. It smells like church. She also sets a large basket of popcorn before us, then pours thick, dark-roasted Ethiopian coffee out of a clay pot into our tiny handle-less espresso cups. I crunch on a couple pieces of popcorn and sip the black, mud-thick brew. The intense aromas and flavors have put me in a dreamy North African mood. I wonder what the weather is like in Addis Ababa this morning, and if I would look good in a fez.
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine costs ten bucks -- not cheap for a couple cups of espresso. But like the Japanese tea ceremony, this isn't about the beverage. Ethiopians take their coffee with yebuna kourse, a salty snack eaten as a palate cleanser. Kolo, a blend of peanuts and roasted barley, sometimes serves this purpose, but popcorn is also popular. The incense is supposed to encourage meditation.
The coffee ceremony is also a traditional time for friends to share their innermost thoughts. It's difficult to tell what my dining companion, Igor, is thinking, since I can barely see his face through the cloud of smoke. But I think I know. A few weeks ago, while on summer vacation in Vermont, Igor was out walking his fluffy French lapdog when it was attacked and killed by a pair of vicious dogs. He's been in a funk ever since. Because 11 a.m. is early for him, he seems especially down today. He tried to order the coffee before lunch, but our hostess insisted that it must come afterward.
Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine
9400 Richmond, 713-782-6882; Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Yebeg tibs: $10
Vegetarian combination: $7.95
Mesob special: $40
Coffee ceremony: $10
He also tried to order off the breakfast menu. I must admit I'm intrigued by the Ethiopian breakfast dishes myself. Cracked wheat with spiced butter and fava beans with garlic and olive oil sound interesting, as do Ethiopian eggs with garlic, tomato and pepper on French bread. But the Ethiopian breakfast menu is served only on weekends and holidays.
As it turns out, Ethiopian food is so spicy, Igor didn't need any preliminary coffee. The lunch woke him up tongue first.
Ethiopian dishes are often seasoned with a spice paste called berbere, a North African chili powder made by combining small amounts of ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, salt and black pepper with lots of cayenne and paprika. The other key flavor is niter kibbeh, or butter with garlic, ginger and spices.
Meals are eaten without utensils from a communal plate, which is first covered with pieces of a flatbread called injera. Typically, the most popular dishes, wots (stews) and tibs (sautés) made of various meats and vegetables, are spooned onto the injera in discrete piles. You scoop up the food with the injera.
"I love this stuff," said an uncaffeinated Igor, tearing off a piece of injera. "It reminds me of foam rubber." Indeed, the tiny bubbles in the dough make it look and feel like the stuff of car seat cushions. Thankfully, it tastes much better.
Injera is made from fermented dough; the flour comes from a tiny but extremely nutritious grain called tiff. Long a staple of North Africa, tiff lately has become a health food store favorite thanks to its high protein and mineral content.
Blue Nile serves the Ethiopian delicacy doulet only on the weekends, but there happened to be some on hand for our lunch. The cold, tartare-like meat paste is made from minced lamb tripe, minced lamb liver and ground beef with spiced butter and hot peppers. The menu offers it raw or sautéed.
"It's very good raw," observed the hostess. I glanced at Igor, who looked like he was going to be ill. So I asked for some raw and some cooked.
The doulet turned out to be much tastier raw. The meat and offal are ground very fine and mixed with tomatoes, parsley and berbere. The mixture has a creamy sort of consistency. The cooked version tastes like taco meat.
"Strange to say, I prefer my lamb's tripe raw," Igor mused. We also tried the yebeg tibs, a very mild lamb sauté that's popular at Blue Nile because of its innocuous spice level. The menu describes it as lamb cubes sautéed with slices of onion, bell pepper, jalapeños and fresh rosemary, but we can barely taste the jalapeños or rosemary.
Vegetables are the most exciting part of Ethiopian cuisine. We ordered the vegetarian combination, which includes all seven meat-free dishes. The lettuce and tomato salad and a bread salad of injera and tomatoes are pedestrian. The racy red lentil stew called yemisser wot, seasoned with ginger, garlic and berbere sauce, is the spiciest dish; its healthy dose of chiles and cumin has inspired some to compare its flavor to that of chili con carne. The bright yellow shirro wot, a yellow pea stew, is sensational as well. Gomen, chopped greens with ginger, fresh garlic and olive oil, is pleasant, as are the turmeric-flavored mixed vegetables.
On a previous visit, four diners shared an even larger communal plate. That day, we ordered the vegetarian combo and the doro wot, a chicken dish made with lots of berbere and spiced butter, and fitfit, a lamb dish flavored with turmeric sauce. We all enjoyed our dinner, but unfortunately, I would later discover that we'd missed a golden opportunity to try the Blue Nile "mesob special."
In the back of the restaurant, there are elaborate, wicker-covered trays with short stands. These are called mesobs, and when you order the mesob special, your food is served on one. Each is surrounded by pillows and low benches where your party lounges while eating. The Blue Nile mesob special comes with any five dishes from the menu, which would've made it perfect for our party of four.
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"Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, you know," Igor says as he munches on some popcorn. The coffee seems to be cheering him up. The little clay pot sits on a doughnut-shaped fiber base that keeps it upright. Out in the parking lot, the bright sun is baking my car. I decide to sit and drink coffee in the cool, dark restaurant awhile longer. I pour us both another cup.
If you're invited to the coffee ceremony in an Ethiopian home, it's impolite to leave before you've had three cups. Ethiopian legend credits the discovery of coffee to a goatherd who noticed that his goats got rambunctious after they ate beans from a particular tree in the mountains of Kaffa. At first, the coffee beans were chewed; sometimes they were combined with butter and eaten. Many Ethiopians still prefer to add salt or butter to their coffee instead of sugar.
I pour us a third cup. A young woman comes by the table and spoons more frankincense over the glowing coal. Igor is enthusiastic about his lunch; in fact, he requested a Styrofoam container to take home the leftovers. He'll get a spicy breakfast out of them tomorrow. But he'll have to go back to drip coffee.