The food of Africa remains relatively unknown to most of us in the U.S. There are probably lots of reasons why we’re not more familiar with African food, and one of them is certainly that there are not a lot of African restaurants in even a major food city like Chicago.
The food of Ethiopia is an exception, and for years we’ve enjoyed Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago (especially at Ethiopian Diamond and Demera Ethiopian Restaurant, both in Uptown). In Oak Park, Addis Café (818 S. Oak Park Ave.) which has been operating as a coffee house offering such standards as bagels and waffles, is beginning to offer a monthly Ethiopian take-out dinners prepared by owner/chef Kalkidan “Kalki” Tesfaye.
In the middle of March, we purchased a meal-to-go consisting of injera (Ethiopian bread made of the gluten-free teff grain) and five delicious vegan stews that are to be ladled over the injera. These stews include:
- Ye-Miser Wot, lentils slow cooked in berbere sauce, with spices and herbed oil (used in most of these dishes).
- Ye-Ater KiK, split peas, also slow cooked, with onions, garlic, and turmeric.
- Fassolia, green beans and carrots in a mild sauce of garlic, onions, and green pepper.
- Atakilt Wot, spiced green cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onion, garlic, and basil-flavored turmeric.
- Beet & Potato Salad, with onions, jalapeno, lemon and vinegar.
This is food that appeals to many different tastes: it’s familiar (beans, potatoes, etc.) and not aggressively spiced. The main challenge, for gringos like us, is probably to get used to eating with the hands, the way it’s done in Ethiopia. With the traditional Ethiopian presentation, It’s easy to forgo silverware. The injera is elastic and pliable, so it’s used as a kind of eating implement: you tear off a piece of the injera to scoop and wrap up the food before popping it into the mouth.
Tesfaye tells us, “I grew up in Ethiopia and lived there until high school. Then we moved to the Bay Area, where I owned a restaurant in Oakland. My mother used to cook a lot, and I learned a lot from her. She lives in Ethiopia, and she still calls to make sure I’m putting the right spices in the food. We can get some ingredients at specialty stores on Chicago’s northside, but when my mother visits from Ethiopia, she brings us ingredients that we can use to give the food an Ethiopian flavor.”
In Ethiopia, Tesfaye explained, individual households create spice blends that are unique to that family. “The berbere spice blend,” she says, “is always different house-to-house. Every house has their own recipe. Even if you go to the big markets, the spice blends will always be labeled with the name of the person or family who made it. It’s like their ‘brand.’ I use my own household’s blend. The same is true with injera: each family makes it in their own way.”
If you’d like to try Ethiopian food for yourself, Addis Café will offer another Ethiopian dinner mid-to-late April. To order a dinner, email Tesfaye at email@example.com; let her know you’d like a dinner and she’ll tell you when you can pick it up. The cost for a dinner in March was $55; it was easily enough to feed four grownups, and it’s a delicious way to learn a little more about an entire continent whose food traditions are slowly being revealed to us in North America.