Like a box of Cracker Jack, Ethiopian food reveals its prize when you get to the bottom. Greasy, goopy and falling apart, you massage it into a ball and drop it down the hatch where, miraculously, there’s always room. It is in the base slab of injera bread where the glorious mélange of flavors — of sour and salty and back-of-the-tongue spicy — unite on a simple canvas. Dig in.
That’s when you’re going to get a little messy.
For centuries Ethiopian people have been mixing the sand-size grains of teff with water, fermenting it for a couple days and then baking up spongy injera bread. Traditionally, it’s made on a heated clay mitad, but electric cookers now are widely used. The gluten-free teff is expensive, so you’ll often find injera made with wheat or barley mixed in, though more American farmers are growing teff in response to rising demand.
Injera is the meal’s primary carb, utensil and plate. Ethiopian restaurant dishes typically come family style on a massive disc of injera, with the dishes ladled on in a dotted rainbow — greasy beef tibs with sliced jalepeño, spicy auburn doro wat with a chicken drumstick and hardboiled egg, vinegary tomato and cucumber salad, savory mustard-colored lentils. You tear off a small piece of injera from a side basket and use it to grab the morsel you want, jousting with your neighbor for the choicest bite.
A proliferation of Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. are now packed with white diners who don’t always approach the meal the same as its originators. Ethiopians eat only with their right hands, as the left is considered unclean or disrespectful, tearing a piece of injera single-handedly before using it to snag a bite. They are also more fastidious, their hands staying clean by touching only the bread and not the food itself, says Harry Kloman, a University of Pittsburgh professor and author of Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. (The moist towelettes are more for the rest of us.) But at the end of the meal, those rules break down. The bottom injera remains, infused with the remnants of the meal it once supported. “That’s when you’re going to get a little messy,” Kloman says.
Still jonesing the morning after? Put together a bowl of breakfast fir-fir — shredded bits of slightly stale bread mixed into leftover stew — a soggy injera meal unto itself that beats the hell out of Cheerios.
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