There are some cuisines that I try and try and I know I will never love, like Thai. It simply doesn’t click with my taste personality, but I never argue when it’s someone else’s choice. I’ll eat it, but I don’t have to like it. There are some cuisines, like Oaxacan, that I’ve tried once or twice, and I’m just not used to it. Perhaps the flavors are something that have to grow on me. I will give them more time, before I formulate a real opinion. And then there are those cuisines that I’ve never had, like Ethiopian.
What? You’ve never had Ethiopian? He was incredulous. Yes, cosmopolitan little me *giggle* has never had Ethiopian. You’re going to love it. And then I become skeptical, because when someone tells me I’m going to love something or someone, well, it’s not always the case. (Sarah, you’re going to love my friend so-and-so. Nope, didn’t love her.) Chalk it up to being a newbie. Or maybe to not having a benchmark for Ethiopian food. Or even that I was starving? Or maybe Fassica really did sweep me off my feet.
There’s no permanent sign yet for Fassica, since it’s only been on the corner of Washington Blvd. and Motor Avenue in Culver City for not quite nine months now. Just a quick trot down Washington, and when we walk in at 12:30, it’s empty. Except for Seble Asfaw, the only woman working in the restaurant.
Seble is welcoming, friendly, and makes us feel like she’s been expecting us. Sit anywhere, so we pick a table halfway toward the back of the low square footage, but high air-footage space. There are thin pink plastic table covers (the disposable kind that you buy at Party City), topped with glass. We ask for water, and order hot tea to start, then examine the plasticene covered pages of the menu.
Fassica is the word for Ethiopia’s easter, which was not this past Sunday, but May 1st. I’m not familiar with the holiday, but I suspect it has something to do with a religion that’s based on the dark-skinned figures in the paintings on the walls. Seble is very eager to teach me, but in a very un-annoying, un-obtrusive way.
The menu is entirely unfamiliar to me, except for the spaghetti with tomato sauce at the bottom of the back page. Huh? That must be for the lone Sony producer who didn’t vote yes for Ethiopian in his regular lunch crew. There’s also something called kinche, which I initially thought was kimchee. I’ll have to find out later what it really is. Though the Ethiopian foods are written in roman letters, I have no idea what they mean. Wot is a common word, and is the equivalent of stew. Rather than trying to navigate through the menu, we order the special combination on the back of the menu, a sampler platter of sorts, that will allow me to get a broad feel for what Ethiopian cuisine has to offer. We talk business as we sip on the clove spiced tea that comes out in individual silver teapots, for us to pour as we wish. It’s deep and dark, and in strange way, refreshingly hot.
Our food takes longer than what is comfortable for lunch, but understandable since Seble is working the entire (though empty) restaurant alone. She proudly sets down huge platter in the middle of the table for us; everything is homemade, by herself. There’s an enormous crepe/pancake-like thing with hundreds on tiny holes on the plate, with nine or ten things placed on it. For my benefit (she knows I am the rookie), Seble points and identifies each item on the plate by its name and describes what it is. I recognize the hard boiled egg in the center and that’s about it.
We also have a basket of buckwheat colored cylinders. These are rolled up injera – a special Ethiopian bread, which is also the same bread under the food on the platter. Seble points out again that she makes them herself. Though they are the color of buckwheat, they are made with a different kind of wheat. Teff, Seble says, that she has brought herself from her home country. Injera has the oddest, lightest, airiest texture – like a slightly chewy, yet tender, sponge. It is sort of like a tortilla, neither in texture nor taste, but in the way it’s used to wrap the foods. In fact, Ethiopian food is eaten without utensils, using injera to pick up the food from the plate. The forks and knives on the table must be for the spaghetti. ;)
All the herbs and spices in each of the foods are familiar to me: garlic, red pepper, and even jalapeno. Berbere, though, is new to me. It is not a single Ethiopian-only spice. Like Indian curry, berbere is a diverse mix of many spices, the recipe varying from one cook to another in content as well as ratios. Cumin, cloves, cardamom, allspice, fenugreek, red chilies, hot chili pepper, ginger, turmeric, salt and pepper, coriander, nutmeg, cayenne, paprika, and cinnamon – these are not foreign to me. However, it’s the different permutations of these familiar spices and combinations with other ingredients that are prepared in a unique way, that is new to me and makes the flavor difficult to describe. Ethiopian certainly is a cuisine that stands alone, but if I have to liken it to something, it’s like a hybrid Indian/Moroccan spice and flavor.
I start with what’s closest to me, vegetables, though I have now forgot
ten their Ethiopian name. They are braised with mild spices, and are good way to ease into the dish. It is carrots, potatoes, onions, and what looks like cabbage, though I am not sure.
Yeater kik alicha are yellow peas, and these, like the vegetables, are mild. It’s slightly sweet, though not from added sugar or honey, just the natural sweetness of peas. I’m working my way around the platter. Yemisir refers to lentils, and there are two types on the plate. Yemisir kik are red lentils cooked with onions, garlic, spices, and red pepper, which gives the kik, well, a kick. On the other side of the plate, simply cooked down to soft, the blackish brown lentils are just yemisir.
Yebere siga tibs are slices of beef cooked with rosemary, onions, carrots, and oddly, jalapeno. There must be a chile pepper in Ethiopia that Seble can’t get here, but whose heat is easily substituted with jalapeno. The tibs are also cooked with tej, a special Ethiopian honey wine that Seble makes and bottles herself.
As we make our way around the plate, Seble brings out a small dish of her homemade cottage cheese. This is ayib, and she tells us to eat it with the food. There’s nothing extraordinary about the ayib by itself, but knowing that Seble made it herself and is so proud of it, it tastes especially delicious to me.
I don’t normally like to eat lamb, but I tried the alicha wot, stewed strips of lamb that look like the tibs, but definitely taste like lamb. It’s spiced and cooked well as far as I can tell, but one taste was enough. It’s just because I know it’s lamb, that’s all.
Gomen is collard greens, chopped and cooked with mild spices. They were not overcooked to mush, just tender, and still retaining a relatively bright green color. Gomen is delicious. Last around the plate is kitfo mitmike, ground beef that’s cooked with hot chilies. This was the one that was the spiciest of them all; but still not as spicy as some Indian or Korean foods I’ve eaten! Gomen and kitfo mitmike are my favorites.
The centerpiece of the plate is doro wot, which looks like it’s going to be fiery hot with the deeply red pepper oil that seeps out and soaks into the injera, but is surprisingly less spicy than the kitfo. Doro wot is a stew of large cuts of chicken cooked with garlic, onions, red pepper, and of course, spices. The egg is mine, but since I eat two hard-boiled eggs for breakfast every morning, I leave the yolk on the small plate in front of me. I use my fork to tear out a little piece of the injera from the middle that’s saturated with the sauce from the doro wot. It’s delicious. There’s a reason that the injera is so sponge-y.
We couldn’t finish what was on the plate – Seble had been quite generous with us. As she cleared the table, she asked if we wanted more tea or coffee. Our lunch had already gone pretty long, as I had noticed that one customer had come in to pick up a to-go order, and two lone diners had come in, eaten, and gone. Another few minutes for coffee, sure. My office was already used to my being gone for hours on end (see: farmers market mission from previous week).
We talked business, and occasionally, we’d hear a little clanging in the kitchen. We talked business some more. And more. The coffee hadn’t come out yet. “What is she doing, roasting the beans herself back there?” *laughing* I lean over and look back into the kitchen. Seble knows we’re wondering what she’s doing back, so she waves, and mouths something I can’t make out. She finally comes to the table, but she doesn’t have the coffee. My mouth is hanging open because she really was roasting the beans herself!
I couldn’t believe it. She goes back to the kitchen, and now we hear a coffee grinder. While the coffee brews, Seble comes back out to the dining room and unrolls a small green mat on the floor. Are we going to sit on the mat to drink coffee? No, Seble sits down on a small stool in front of a very low tray table on the mat, and ceremoniously lifts a hand-crafted coffee pot way up above even her head, and expertly pours the coffee in a long, thin stream into a tiny cup with perfect aim. This is the way it is served. How’s that for not only freshly brewed, but freshly, individually hand roasted coffee! The coffee is dark, and slightly bitter, but again, with all of Seble’s care, it tastes great. I even appreciate the coarsely ground evidence of her painstaking handiwork in the bottom of the cup.
Perhaps that is why I was so swept off my feet my first time with Ethiopian. Seble was so proud of her culture’s cuisine, so eager to educate me, so attentive to the details of her food. She made it all, and I mean all, herself. I’m sure I should make a pilgrimage to Fairfax to try other Ethiopian, but for now, I am quite enamored of Fassica.
10401 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232