I have never claimed to be a food expert or authority. I write about restaurants because I love them. I love the food made by my favorite establishments, and I love the institution itself. And despite my lack of credentials, experience, and all around knowledge, I’ll admit to trying to bring some discipline and focus to my writing about food and the people that make it for me. One (of many) embarrassing gaps in my resume as a food blogger is Ethiopian food.
Up until recently I tried it exactly once. In Washington, DC. I hated it. I’ve lived in Seattle for around twelve years and until recently had never partaken of the local Ethiopian fare. For someone who claims to be into food, and especially into ethnic food, this is clearly a crime of non-trivial proportions. So feel free to criticize. I’d like to blame it on the horrible food I had at that Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC. Or perhaps it was my lack of food perspective at the time. But in all honesty, given the plethora of Ethiopian establishments that I could walk to from my house, there’s simply no excuse.
I decided that there was no reason not to start my reintroduction to Ethiopian food at the Seattle Ethiopian restaurant with one of the best reputations — Habesha. Unlike the bulk of its brethren, Habesha doesn’t have that ethnic hole-in-the-wall feel. Quite to the contrary, it’s a very stylish establishment situated in the edge of Belltown. Habesha is clearly trying to be (what they call in the media world) a cross-over hit. Whether they’ve gotten there or not, I don’t know. And since we’ve already established that I have no real experience eating Ethiopian food (even in its Seattle incarnation) I’m not in a position to judge whether the proprietors of Habesha have moved their food closer to what they think the non-Ethiopian population of Seattle might enjoy. (Picture an Ethiopian version of P.F. Chang’s if you will.) The only thing I can tell you is whether I enjoyed the food at Habesha, and whether I want to go back. I can say definitively that the answer is yes, and yes.
My memory of Ethiopian food was hazy. It was a long time ago and not positive. I remember a big stewed gloopy mess. Everything was gray. Things tasted gray. At Habesha, the various items that dotted our Injera (the big spongy bread serving as plate and spoon) had indeed been cooked thoroughly but their flavors were bright and deep. Spicy. Tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices integrated to give everything warm tone. But the sharpness shone through to punctuate each bite. The lentils resembled the best refried beans. A warm mash with delicious savory tones. Warm and soft in your mouth. Soothing next to the sparks of some of the spicier items. Kei Wot — beef cooked in their spicy red sauce, and Doro Tibs — cubed chicken breast in seasoned olive oil, onion and garlic garnished with tomatoes, awaze, and jalapeno were the stars of the affair, with the Misser Wot lentils stewed in onions and olive oil followed closely behind.
And underneath these mounds of food was this enormous pancake of spongy sour goodness. The bread soaked up the flavors from above but didn’t turn into a soggy mess. Like a thick pancake with a spongy texture and a sourdough base the bread accented all the flavors from the food above. Wrapped them in a soft container and the acidity gave balance to the spicy and smooth flavors above.
And while I have no idea how Habesha stacks up against the myriad other Ethiopian restaurants that dot the Seattle landscape, I do know that I’d like to go back. Now the only challenge will be to try a bunch of others before I go back to Habesha. It’s a hardship, but it’s my cross to bear.