When I first started investigating Ethiopian cuisine I was skeptical at best. There were lots of stews and curry-like dishes and absolutely no utensils. That seemed like a very bad plan right out of the box. All the descriptions that I could find put a heavy emphasis on the bread that plays the utensil role and that maintained my curiosity even though I wasn’t quite ready to darken the door just yet.
What finally pushed me over the edge was a conversation with my son who’s a banker in Denver. He was having trouble getting his stereotypically conservative banker buddies to join him at Denver's top Ethiopian joint, and, yes, his buddies are mostly my age. To try and stave off the old fart tag for a little longer, I tied my shoes extra tight and went to Blue Nile on Richmond.
Blue Nile has been here awhile and, by all accounts, serves arguably the best Ethiopian cuisine in town. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I walked in, but it wasn’t what I experienced. My awareness of African culture was pretty pathetic really. Let me just say that I was not a card carrying member of African cultural cognoscenti. I just thought that Blue Nile would be more African. You know, jungley or all elephants and zebras or something, but instead it struck me as something that could have easily come from northern Mexico. Bright colors contrasted with earth tones in the dining area and the service staff appeared as though they were born and raised in Monterrey.
I’ve done some homework since then and my Heart of Darkness mental image of Ethiopia could not have been farther from reality. Ethiopia has as much North African influence as it does anything else, even though it is just above the equator and has the iconic African country Kenya as a neighbor. If I had done a little background investigation before I went, I would not have been quite so surprised by the cuisine.
It doesn’t really matter whether you go with lamb, beef, chicken, fish or vegetarian choices from the menu as the meals revolve around the interesting Ethiopian bread called injera. It isn’t like anything I have ever had. When they first brought it out I thought they were bringing fresh cloth napkins out on a tray, sort of like getting the hot towel treatment in a Japanese joint.
The texture appeared like chamois and they were double folded into quarters. I can’t think of any other bread that supple. More homework revealed that injera is made from the teff, which is a grain grown in the highlands of Ethiopia. It has a very low gluten concentration, which probably has something to do with injera’s fascinating texture. The bread became even more intriguing when I unfolded it. The darker colored underside was pocked with bazzilions of tiny bubbles that did not pass through to the upper surface. It looked for all the world like the fine gills on the underside of a mushroom cap, except in circle patterns instead of lines.
The combination of supple texture and all that surface area provided by the tiny bubbles makes injera the perfect tool for handling stews and curries. You probably could even master chicken noodle soup with the stuff!
Our niece Diana and her husband Chris joined us for the adventure and we took our host up on the family-style serving option. We had sambusas to start things off and then lamb fitfit, both of which could have easily been dishes served in an Indian restaurant. It makes you wonder when the Ethiopian sambusas are darn near the same thing as Indian samosas, right? For the fitfit, cubes of lamb were braised in a spicy turmeric sauce with sliced jalapenos thrown in for even more fun. Both were excellent but since they so strongly reminded me of Indian food I was wishing that we had selected something more dramatically Ethiopian.
The beef kitfo took care of that issue quite well, thank you very much. Essentially a steak tartare, the kitfo was spiced nicely and had just enough exoticness that I felt suitably Africanized. We also indulged in their Ethiopian honey wine. Although the wine was too sweet for my taste, it was fun drinking it from the “I Dream of Jeannie” bottle instead of a glass.
I’ll be back to explore the Ethiopian angle again at Blue Nile and I already have designs on checking out Ghana House on very south Main to erode my African cultural ignorance even more. It’ll be interesting to see how many more surprises like injera are out there that make African finger food such an experience.