Eat like an Ethiopian

No forks. No knives. No spoons. Just a huge circle of flat bread folded in quarters on a small plate with a stack of napkins beside it acted as utensils at the Ethiopian restaurant Meskerem in St. Louis. Not what we expected when we decided to broaden our family’s culinary experience at an ethnic restaurant. We expected the food to be seasoned differently: more curry, ginger and awaze sauce (whatever that is). The online pictures of menu items did not show slabs of steaks, just platters with neatly arranged circles of chopped food on platters

When traveling, my husband and I look for restaurants we cannot find at home. Visiting major cities offers opportunities to taste foods we would only  find in another country. We knew the food would be different. We did not expect eating etiquette to also change.

We entered an attractively decorated restaurant with a quiet, serene atmosphere. No television screens constantly tuned to sports. No piles of peanut shells littered the floors and tables. Linen cloth covered the table. Highly polished wooden chairs and tastefully arranged art urged good manners. The menu had one simple note, “Traditional Ethiopian food is eaten with flat bread. After trying it most guests find the no fork experience fun.”

We quickly learned that all the well chopped food qualified as finger food. I take that back, we did not pick up the food with our fingers. We each, my husband, son, his wife and three children received a small plate with flatbread. It looked like a very large, spongey flat crepe. It tasted mildly sour when eaten alone. 

We looked at each other, grinned and began tearing off pieces of flarbread. We reached out for a sample from the meat platter: Tibs Wat, Doro Wat, Tibs Alecha, Miser Alecha or Miser Wat. Beef, chicken, lentils, lentils and cabbage with carrots and potatoes. Poor Henry, 9, he tried a couple bites and shoved his plate of flatbread aside. “I don’t want any,” he said time and again. 

His mom coaxed him, “try a little burrito of the meat, one of the cabbage and another of chicken.” He rolled his eyes many times before he finally relented and tried the tiny burritos she assembled. They were okay. He ate a couple, waiting to eat more familiar foods at home.

Sophie, 14, and Sam, 12, tore bread and relished the new experience of all finger food without a fork in sight. “You should try these green beans,” Grandpa and Sam both urged Henry. “They are sweet.”

I am still trying to find that green bean mixture on the menu. It isn’t there, but we enjoyed it along with the spicey and mild dishes. 

Halfway through the meal, I said, “It does not look like a lot, but I am feeling full.”

“I think it is the flat bread,” Joy observed.

Right, that fold of bread with every scoop, quickly filled us. We tore, pinched up a bit of food and ate as we admired the wood carvings and paintings reflecting the country on the other side of Africa with 20 distinct cultures. It’s a very old country where folks eat without any utensils.

The platters emptied as we filled with meat and vegetables. Sweet tooth Sam wondered about dessert. “Not tonight buddy. We are stuffed.” The leftovers folded up into the ubiquitous Styrofoam carryout box to take home. I expect the bits and pieces will taste quite differently eaten with a fork at the house.

About jottingjoan

retired former newspaper writer. Many children and grandchildren. One husband.
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