"What it is?" I asked my friends, pointing at a brown dish that looked like dal makhni.
"Wot." said my friend.
"Yeah thats what Im asking you", I said.
"You don't know, do you?"
"Of course I do. It's Wot."
"You foolish fool of a foolish fool, I will make chakli out of your brain and feed to wild animals."
"Arre Its Wot. I cannot help if you can't figure out what's Wot and what's not."
This intellectually superior conversation took place at the Addis Ababa restaurant in Houston, where my friends had taken me for some authentic Ethiopian. When they told me we were doing Ethiopi Khana, I pictured a large communal dinner with piles of fragrant rice and large legs of mutton, followed by thick black coffee, all to the accompaniment of lively African music and drums. I was not disappointed. Everything was as I expected- except that the food that we ordered was entirely?
Happiness. First came a large plate containing something that looked and tasted like a soft neer dosa made out of Ragi. I learnt that it's called Injera, the main staple of Ethiopian food. In quick succession followed a series of pulses - boiled and half mashed like daal but each with a certain something different to them that I couldnt place. A couple of spinach dishes, a large salad of tomatoes and a bowl of curried potatoes followed the lentils and made for a wonderful meal, all tied together with the Injera. It was like a perfect mix of South and North Indian except for the distinct absense of oil and spice. Beauteous I say.
"Excuse please", I said to the pretty waiterni. "Why y'all are hawing so many vez item on your minu?" I asked in my best Desi Texan drawl, expecting her to tell me about a nouveau vegan movement in Ethiopia that resulted in these world fusion dishes. The waiterni gasped, whacked me with an injera, emptied a bowl of wot on my head, screamed "Dubaara mat poochna" and flounced off into the kitchen. Apparently Ethiopia has had mainstream vegetarian food for almost as long as India has. Ethiopia's Orthodox Christian faith - the oldest surviving in the world - requires rigorous abstinence from meat during Lent and so their cuisine adapted itself to the habits of the people. Arre how lovely, I thought to myself while I wiped the wot off my face with the injera.
I certainly don't mind sampling the odd meat dish, but am unfortunately a guilt ridden veggie at heart. So I was delighted to know that there's actually another countryful of cud-chewers in the world apart from good old Desland. Even the music sounded vaguely like a South Indian Raga. Or perhaps it was the relief of having eaten something so refreshingly un-Texan (ie, not attached to a cow) that was playing tricks with my head.
Here are some Wots (gravies) and Atkilts (veggie dishes) that I definitely recommend when you order veggie at an Ethiopian restaurant, though most restaurants offer platters with a sampling of everything.
Aterkik Alitcha - split peas prepared with light sauce
Atkilt Wot - cabbage, carrots, potatoes simmered in sauce
Atkilt Salata - boiled potatoes, jalapeno mixed in salad dressing
Buticha - chickpea dip mixed with lemon juice
Inguday Tibs - mushroom sauteed with onions
Fasolia - string beans and carrots sauteed in caramelized onion
Gomen - collard green cooked with spices
Misir Wot - pureed split red lentil simmered berbere sauce
Misir Alitcha - pureed split red lentil simmered in mild sauce
Shimbra Asa - chickpeas flour dumplings cooked in wot (brown sauce)
Shiro Alitcha - mild split peas are milled together slow cooked
Shiro Wot - split peas are milled together and slow cooked
Salata - Ethiopian salad, dressing: lemon, jalapeno & spices
Timatim Selata - tomato salad, onions, jalapeno & lemon juice