One of the complaints I've always heard leveled against Ethiopian food is that it isn't "pretty," or that it doesn't photograph well. The latter may often be true, because the texture and consistency of many Ethiopian dishes has a tendency to get lost in translation when photographed. A lovely, well-seasoned mound of stewed golden lentils can look like baby food in the wrong hands.
Last week, I complained bitterly about the tendency for Americans to eat a lot of bland, beige-colored food. I am not alone in this complaint; our fixation with beige food has become a national health concern. Wrote Juliann Schaeffer in the November 2088 issue of Today's Dietician, quoting Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, a lecturer in the department of food science and nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo:
"We eat foods primarily based on their taste, their cost, and how convenient they are," [Bowerman] notes. "The food manufacturers have done a great job of creating many foods that are easy to eat, inexpensive, and rich in sugar, fat, and salt so that they taste good. Starches, fats, and sweets are the least expensive foods in the diet, so it's easy to see why we lean toward these 'brown/beige' foods. They fill us up for very little monetary cost, but there are significant health costs to a diet that is so high in refined carbohydrates and devoid of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals that are so abundant in plant foods."
In other words, beige foods are often delicious -- the crunchy or fatty or starchy things we often think of as comfort food -- but they're also best enjoyed in moderation, not made into the foundation of one's daily diet.
That's why Ethiopian food thrills me so. It's some of the most colorful cuisine you'll find -- each dish stained with the rich, earthy red tones of berbere spices, the vivid yellow of lentils or the glossy green of collards standing out against fat, orange carrots and pale, celadon cabbage. Ethiopian food is simply vibrant to behold, before you even taste the stuff that's been piled on thick, fluffy rounds of injera bread.
Although you may be trepidatious the first time you see Ethiopian food -- a cuisine that's still held out as terribly exotic by many diners, in the same vein as Nigerian or West African food -- it's the colors that will draw you in. It's hard not to be excited and intrigued by the jewel tones of a feast set in front of you this way.
And at the end of the day, there's nothing particularly "exotic" about collard greens, cabbage, carrots, lentils, chicken, lamb, fish and beef -- the main foodstuffs that make up most Ethiopian meals. This are basics. Food that's simple and good for you, but fragrant with the scents and flavors that call to mind mild Indian curries and Middle Eastern spice routes.
It's food that's never bland and never beige. Except for the injera bread, of course. And even that's good for you -- the teff flour it's made with is naturally gluten-free, high in fiber, calcium and an array of other minerals, and contains all eight essential amino acids to make it a full protein. That's a beige food I can get behind.
The spreads at Lucy are beautiful representations of why I love Ethiopian food so much -- and they taste as good as they look. Browse through this week's slideshow to check it out for yourself, and head over to this week's cafe review to read more on Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge.