Here, Eat This

Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Ethiopian Cuisine

People unfamiliar with African cuisines often tend to lump them all in together: East African, West African, North African...what's the difference? We don't lump French and Spanish food together simply because they share a border, however, nor do we regard Indian and Chinese as the same because they share a continent.

African food is similarly diverse and distinct, especially in Ethiopia -- a country with incredibly fertile land and a rich history. Indeed, this corner of the world is the site of the earliest human habitation. The country has been marred by war and famine in its more recent history, however, which tends to overshadow its immense contributions.

Houston's newer Ethiopian restaurant, Lucy, is looking to change this perception by offering inexpensive, accessible food in a modern, attractive setting. Even its name calls attention to the positive aspects of Ethiopia, which is where the 3.2 million year-old skeletal remains of Lucy -- an Australopithecus afarensis and one of our earliest ancestors -- was found.

The rest of the world is slowly discovering Ethiopian food too, thanks in no small part to people like Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef who owns the renowned Red Rooster in Harlem and to the large Ethiopian diaspora in cities such as Washington D.C., where the cuisine is as popular as Indian food is in Houston.

You'll notice that there's no pork or shellfish of any kind served in Ethiopian restaurants. This is due to the major religions that have influenced the country over thousands of years: Judaism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity. Yes -- Christianity. The Kingdom of Aksum, now known as Ethiopia and Eritrea, was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century. Today, nearly 50 percent of Ethiopians identify as Orthodox Christians, while 34 percent are Muslim and 19 percent are Protestant.

This also means that you will find stimulants in Ethiopian restaurants, in particular coffee and alcohol. And if you look around, you'll probably also find at least one icon of Saint George slaying a dragon. Ethiopia shares this patron saint with Greece, and it's just one reminder that the country has shared such a fascinating history with Western culture over the years.

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Katharine Shilcutt