Movable Feast: Abyssinia



Tired of lunch truck fare, fed up with overpriced bistros and eager to take a break from our computers, we at the Current recently found ourselves in head-scratching mode trying to come up with something different. Abyssinia, the Ethiopian restaurant we ended up at, is certainly different.

The most different thing about Abyssinia (229 S. 45th St.), though a trait common to Ethiopian eateries, is that you eat with your hands. In fact, you eat the platter. Okay, that’s not quite true. What happens is this: a waitress brings out an oval tray draped with a spongy sort of pancake called injera. On top of the pancake are piles of veggie and meat stews, which you, the diner, scoop up with pieces of injera. First you use the injera provided in a basket on the table. When that’s used up, you dive in and dismantle the “platter,” by now soaked with flavorful juices.

We mention injera up front because your response to this unleavened “bread”—made from a grain called teff, Ethiopia’s staple crop—will largely dictate whether you love or hate this East African cuisine. Injera’s spongy texture, porous with lots of air bubbles, makes it an excellent tool for mopping up tasty stews. That we all agreed on, but injera also has a tangy sourdough taste that’s definitely an acquired one, and it’s served slightly below room temperature, making the words “cold” and “clammy” spring too readily to mind for some of us.
Think what you will about injera’s unique qualities; eating without utensils from a shared dish can make even the glummest diner feel the warming spark of communal experience. And the mounds of stew arrayed on the pancake in burnished shades of orange, red and brown, are spicy and delicious.

We particularly liked the vegetarian options such as Shiro Wat, an earthy blend of split peas, lentils and chickpeas. Order the veggie combo and you’ll also get to sample Ye Atikilt Wat, with string beans, carrots and potatoes, and Ye’Gomen Wat, a savory collard greens concoction. Wat, by the way, is the Ethiopian name for a stew, and all are deeply redolent of ginger, garlic and turmeric.

Meat dishes range from simply cooked chicken legs to dark, complex curries of beef simmered with berbere, a red paste of fiery herbs and spices. Onions and green peppers top the bill in the milder lamb stew called Yebeg Alecha.

If you have vegetarians in your midst, be sure to ask the waitress for separate platters for meat and veg. We somehow failed to convey this to our waitress, so our poor vegetarian was forced to inspect every potential mouthful for possible contamination.

Two other tips. If you’re at all ambivalent about injera (or plan to eat dinner that night), steer clear of the appetizer “salads” or Fit Fits—bowls of chopped up injera doused with potent lentil or tomato based dressings. This stuff is filling. Also, the service at Abyssinia is leisurely, so plan on being gone from the office for a while. But hey, with all the feelings of good fellowship stirred up by communal eating, who’s in any hurry to get back to the workaday world.

Originally published on December 8, 2005