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Welcome to Demystifying Strange Foods, a series that introduces amazing cultures through their delicious foods, and in the process demystify both said culture and food. A close friend introduced me to Ethiopian food, and I’ve been an hopeless junkie ever since. Many times a week, I get cravings for Ethiopian flavors that manifest themselves physically if I don’t satisfy the pain hunger. Is this how zombies feel?

When tourists visit our beloved little city, they dine at Ben’s Chili Bowl or Old Ebbitt Grill, but sadly leave without ever stepping foot inside an Ethiopian restaurant. Washington is home to approximately 200,000 Ethiopians, the largest Ethiopian community in the US, which means we’re fortunate to have the best Ethiopian food in the country. Not even New York can claim that.

For those of you still living who are intimidated by Ethiopian food and the thought of eating with your bare hands (!), here’s everything you need to know but were afraid to ask:

When you enter an Ethiopian restaurant, you’ll find standard tables and chairs–or short, woven tables that look like a shallow basket on a pedestal. These are called mesob and you’ll see that they cradle the large platters of food you’ll eat on perfectly.

There’s no silverware, no forks, no knives. Much like two high school kids in the backseat of a car, this is all about using your hands. The platter will be lined with injera, a traditional Ethiopian bread made with teff flour. Injera looks like a big, spongy pancake the size of a pizza, and tastes like sourdough bread. It’s essentially a large sourdough crepe. Your food will be served in a ring of mounds on the injera like a painter’s palette. It’s beautiful, exciting, fragrant and delicious!

As with many parts of the world, you typically would eat with your right hand since the left is reserved for cleansing your body–which by the way you did do, right? Go wash those hands! What if you’re left-handed? Learn to be ambidextrous or risk horrified looks on the people around you.

Ethiopian cooking uses a lot of berbere, which is a ground orange-red powder of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima and fenugreek, which gives Ethiopian food its distinct flavors. Not all Ethiopian food is spicy, though jalapeno peppers do make a regular appearance. Berbere more tangy and complex more than spicy as we know it, and it has a interesting, deep, smoky flavor that will delight you.

What’s on the menu? Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays, Fridays and during Lent, so you’ll find plenty of vegetarian options but also beef, lamb, chicken, fish, coffee and desserts.

Wots are stews; kitfo, is raw, warmed meat, like steak tartare; and tibs are sautéed meat with vegetables. Feeding a loved one the best morsels is encouraged; the tradition is called gursha. Ethiopian is pretty phonetic. Learn how to pronounce Ethiopian dishes here.

Ethiopian coffee is made in a long, ritualized process that could take hours. You may see a woman sitting in the corner roasting coffee beans, and you’ll smell the fragrant smoke. Take your coffee with sugar and no milk. It’s strong and one of the highlights of Ethiopian fare. Unfortunately, desserts are not. Sweets are not common after dinner, however you may find chocolate cake or tiramisu on the menu due to the Italian influence in Ethiopia.

Ready to practice your newfound knowledge? Then go forth and eat! Here are some of our favorite Ethiopian restaurants in town:

  • Zenebech, 2420 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009.
  • Dukem, 1114 U Street NW, Washington, DC. 202.667.8735.

Photo courtesy of Zenebech.