The Twin Cities is home to thousands of Ethiopian immigrants. But that isn't why you should get to know the cuisine. The Twin Cities is also home to thousands of lakes, but that doesn't mean we're going to implore you to set up an ice fishing rig.
Ethiopian cuisine is one of those gems that's hidden in plain sight, like a winter carnival medallion, but a spicy, delicious one that you can eat.
1. If you like sourdough bread, you will love injera.
Despite its strange appearance -- almost gray in color and with a dappled sponginess like the inside of a cow's stomach, injera boasts an intense sourdough tang, not unlike the best San Francisco loaves.
As a bonus, injera is made with teff flour, a naturally gluten-free whole grain that's like the Harvard professor of nutrition, it's got so many accolades. Compared to other grains, it has a much larger percentage of bran and germ so it's a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, iron, amino acids, vitamin C, and calcium. The calcium content in teff significantly surpasses that of all other grains. Plus, delicious.
A 12-inch crepe of injera has only about 200 calories and less than 2 grams of fat -- and it's very filling. Some believe the sponginess inspires it to "expand" in your belly. Sourdough is also a ferment -- big in the news these days for keeping all those gut microbes happy. Superfood? Maybe.
2. Are you vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian? Ethiopian food has something for you.
There are many "fasting" (meat-free) periods in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, so vegan food is big and flavorful. Anytime you've got people eschewing meat for religious purposes (think Indian), the vegetarian food gets really good over a millennia of tinkering. Lentils, chickpeas, and beans figure prominently in dishes like wat, kik alicha, and shiro, all heavily spiced and nicely balanced with tomatoes, garlic, and peppers.
3. Prefer meats? Ethiopian food has something for you, too.
Beef Tibs has got an Olympian runner's advantage over any bolognese, any chili, any pot of stew. It starts with berbere, (garlic, red pepper, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, and various other spices) and then a whole bunch of sirloin, tomato, jalapeño for more spice, and copious onion for funk. If there is any winter food, this is it -- rich, warming, exotically transporting.
4. It's a textural wonderland.
Some people like to say that Ethiopian food is mushy, without enough textural interest, and those people aren't taking advantage of pairing it with collard greens (gomen wat), piquant and bright with ginger and lemon; or cabbage slaw (atkilt wat), cruciferous with carrot and eye-popping jalapeño; or even a simple side of crunchy greens or pickles.
5. Keeping Kosher? No pork or shellfish served here.
6. Don't worry, there's booze.
Alcohol and coffee are both served in Ethiopian restaurants, unlike some other African establishments, depending on region.
7. You can make it at home and cleanup is a cinch.
If you're a home cook, even a novice one, this is good, relatively easy cooking. Stews are forgiving, and you get control over the spice level.
Use injera for your plate and the same for your fork. Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands (right only, please), making it the ultimate casual food, but also the ultimate interactive one. Call forth a band of mates, throw down some pillows, and serve a big spread around a low table. Good fun.
8. It's cheap.
If you're cooking at home, load up on legumes, onions, garlic, onions, ginger, chiles, and spices, and you're in dinner for days. Dining out? Expect to eat heartily for roughly $10 a person.
9. The Twin Cities has some of the best.
10. There's plenty to discover.
You've had hand-pulled linguine, house-ground burgers, Neopolitan pizza, charcuterie boards, durian, and samosas. But if you quickly try to name 10, even five, Ethiopian dishes, you probably won't be able to do it. We can't do it.
And that's why, when winter gets the better of us, and we ain't got no money for a passport stamp, we explore with our gastro-tickets tightly gripped, adventure and appetite leading the way. Send your story tips to Hot Dish.