Day 39: Ethiopia
Somehow Ethiopian cuisine, an extremely regional section of African cooking, has become comfort food to a lot of people in the United States of America. What got it to cross the line from “ethnic” to just plain “tasty”? Does it have similarities to basic foods that we grew up eating? Or is it simpler? Is Ethiopian food actually better than most other ethnic foods that haven’t caught on? If you organized a taste test with a cross section of the world and offered up Ethiopian food and Norwegian food, would the majority like Ethiopian? If they did, would that make it better? Thinking back to my first time eating Ethiopian food, I was a lot younger and a lot less adventurous. I was leery, but after taking one bite I was instantly hooked. It didn’t take any time for my brain to adjust. I didn’t need somebody helping me through it and explaining how it all works. I just put it in my mouth and was happy with the result, even if I wasn’t familiar with any of the flavors.
Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant and Market in Los Angeles, CA. My father and stepmom are taking GirlfriendBites and I out for my belated birthday lunch. Yes, my birthday was a few weeks ago and yes, that side of the family has a calendar. They just don’t like to be confined to its specific interpretations of our planet’s rotation around the sun. But we all sit down to what sounds like Ethiopian musak and enjoy the colorful and unmistakably African design of the place. Fabrics hang from the ceiling and early artistic forms adorn the walls as we each sip our uniquely refreshing Ethiopian beers. Sometimes a beer tastes like a lot of other beers and sometimes it tastes like a country. These beers taste like Ethiopia. The restaurant is busy and no one, from the customers to the servers, seems to be in a hurry. Eventually, a massive plate of the thin sour dough bread, injera, comes topped with a wide variety of vegetables as well as some sauteed chicken and beef (tibs). Also arriving on our table is a bowl of the breakfast staple, foul (pronounced “fool”), cooked beans with onions, peppers and sour cream which would not even raise a skeptical eyebrow at a Mexican dinner if it weren’t served with French bread. The food, across the board, is delicious and everyone seems to be having a good time, even though my dad points out “There’s still something weird to me about eating with my fingers.” An old school, upper middle class New York Jewish upbringing will do that to you. He revolted from it as a young man to the point that he dropped out of college to start working as a session musician in the south, stopped wearing shoes and was for some time a vegan, but nothing could get rid of the basic feeling that meals are simply not to be eaten with your fingers. That’s just not dignified.
Like with most great communal cuisines, flavors mixing together is a good thing. The yellow vegetable, which tastes like Ethiopian sauerkraut, pairs beautifully with the chicken, especially when wrapped up in lentil-soaked injera. There really aren’t any bad combinations. An appetizer which seems to just be a jalapeño stuffed with tomatoes and onions is edible, but with such a massive plate of more preferable food just a few inches away, it gets understandably neglected. We manage to consume the majority of it as time continues to pass at a rapid rate. We discover that an order of Ethiopian coffee takes about forty five minutes and opt to go with a round of cafe lattes instead, which my stepmother decisively regards as “the best latte I’ve ever had in my life”. Once again it becomes very clear that no one else who is here, on either side of the service, is in a hurry. But my dad and stepmom have to pick up Super Jake from his friend’s house, so they must move on. We hug goodbye and GFB and I sit for a moment as I help her finish the last few sips of her latte.
On our way home we get a phone call from my dad who says “I was thinking about it and I have an interesting perspective for you to put in your [Personal Food Project in] blog [Form]. As research shows that wealth has no correlation to happiness once you get above a certain line of poverty, it’s really interesting to see how enjoyment can be as simple as spending all afternoon with a bunch of people you like when you aren’t in a hurry to move on to something else. Being busy doesn’t make you happy either.” They say they’d love to do this again some time, but it’s difficult to have a three plus hour lunch with a child in his mid 0s, so I tell them we’ll have to get together some time when he’s in college. Luckily, GFB and I have the rest of our day free and look forward to a day of simple pleasures. A light dinner, a glass of wine and a small furry dog sound about right to me. All it took was some East African comfort food to set the tone.
Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant
1036 1/2 S Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Food Breakdown: 4 alcoholic beverages, 4 non-alcoholic beverages, 1 appetizer, 6 entrees
Price: Found it rude to ask for the cost of my birthday dinner.
Distance From My House: 3.7 miles