Before eating at the wonderful Ethiopian restaurant Awash [1520 Westheimer, (713)520-9387], there are three things you really need to know: 1) You'll be eating communally, sharing food with all the members of your party; 2) You'll be eating with your hands, using bits of Ethiopian bread, injera; and 3) You'll be enjoying one of the world's most delicious cuisines.
So don't be afraid. Even if you've never eaten Ethiopian food in your life, the warm, knowledgeable waitresses are sure to put you at ease. And the place itself is exotic but comfortable. Ethiopian folk art and paintings decorate the walls, and standard American chairs and tables are mixed with their Ethiopian relatives: stools surrounding round, low-to-the-ground tables, each wearing an elaborate straw cone like a perky sombrero. The large numbers of families eating here add to the feeling that you're spending an evening in someone's home.
But the first thing you'll notice when you enter the restaurant is the aroma of roasting spices. The various stews and sauteed dishes are built chiefly around two spicy building blocks: berebere, a red paste made from ground chilies and spiced butter, a clarified butter similar to Indian ghee, but flavored with onion, garlic and spices.
Back to the injera, perhaps the world's most unusual bread. Made from a grain called teff, it has a bland, slightly fermented flavor. It looks for all the world like a thin, grayish unflipped pancake, and its spongy texture makes it ideal for scooping food.
The Awash Combo I ($14.99) provides a good introduction for newcomers: It's a sampling of some of the restaurant's most popular items. Doro wot, Ethiopia's second most popular dish, is a memorable chicken stew with spiced butter, garlic and onion, served with a hard-boiled egg. Mash the egg into the sauce and enjoy. Also included are two fine beef dishes: one spicy and hot (keye wot) and one not (sega alecha), but both delicious. The vegetable offerings are just as good: denich wot, a creamy spiced potato stew; kik alecha, split peas seasoned with ginger and garlic; and best of all, gomen, mild but bright-tasting collard greens that provide a welcome break from the other dishes' intense spiciness.
If you feel ready to graduate from those basics, consider supplementing your combo plate with kitfo, Ethiopia's national dish ($12.99 for a large serving). Hot butter and spices are mixed with hot peppers and chopped beef -- raw chopped beef, a sort of Ethiopian steak tartare. Yes, if you suffer health misgivings or plain squeamishness, you can order the dish cooked, and you'll receive something like a spicy hamburger. But do you really want something like a spicy hamburger? Would you ask to have your sushi grilled?
No, of course not. Order the kitfo in its raw glory, with a side of homemade cottage cheese. Tear off a piece of injera and fill it with smooth spiced beef and a bit of rich cheese. The tastes and textures are foreign, exhilarating and nothing like a cheeseburger.
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There are several other dishes I'd urge you to try as well. The awaze tibs ($12.99) is a beef tips dish smothered with onion, garlic, jalapeno and berebere; it's brick-red, intense and altogether fabulous. At first glance, beg tibs ($12.99) doesn't look as promising: pale chunks of lamb and sliced onions, no sauce -- but an overnight marination in Ethiopian spices gives the meat an extraordinary depth.
For a vegetable dish, we enjoyed the shimbera assa wot ($6.99), small patties made from chickpea flour, stewed in a dense, rust-colored sauce. And a great accompaniment to any of these dishes is the azifa ($5.99), a chilled mixture of lentils, horseradish, onion, lime juice and jalapenos. Its clean, astringent taste nicely cleanses your palate.
Ethiopians don't eat a lot of dessert, but Awash produces a couple of good ones anyway. The baklava is slightly unusual, a solid layer of nuts with flaky pastry on just the top and bottom, with a honey sauce. Even better is the cheese tart, light and warm, with chunks of sauteed apples.
Both go beautifully with Ethiopian coffee, which is presented in a gorgeous traditional pot with a small incense burner. The aroma of the dark, spiced coffee combines with the sweet smell of the incense. Suddenly, you're not in Houston anymore.