Food cravings can be intense, debilitating even. Once you get that sushi fixation, for example, it's not going away until you demolish a platter of tuna, yellowtail, salmon roe and uni. Same goes for fried chicken, pho, barbecue brisket and spicy Szechuan shrimp. Well, in my case anyway.
Here's one that I never thought would enter the repertoire: Ethiopian food.
Most of us arrive at restaurants with suitcases full of expectations, but when it comes to Ethiopian, those bags are often completely empty, save for a few pitiless jokes. Like many adventurous diners, I've sampled the cuisine during a teenage trip to Washington, D.C. and right here at home at the lovely Empress Taytu, which opened a staggering 25 years ago.
But after reviewing that local eatery more than a decade ago, I have yet to return, which says more about my job than the job they do at that fine eatery. It took Zoma, a new restaurant in my own backyard, to awaken an obsession I didn't realize existed. This is the kind of food that worms its way inside your soul. A cuisine that has no peers.
It's easy to make fun of a place that employs no silverware, but that practice really gets to the heart of what makes Ethiopian food so fun, social and indelible. Diners eat with their hands (hand, actually; the right one), pinching off pieces of flatbread to scoop up small bites of food. Meals are served communally, with all the food artfully arranged on a platter, around which the diners sit, socialize and, well, commune. Replace the food with a jigsaw puzzle or Scrabble board and absolutely nothing changes.
Those colorful mounds of food consist of cold salads, spicy stews and savory stir-fries. Like Indian curries, the dishes are rich, complex and deeply satisfying. Some are spicy, others well-spiced. Many are crafted with blends 25 ingredients strong. Meat-based items are built around beef, chicken or lamb. Vegetarian dishes elevate humble lentils, peas, chickpeas, cabbage and potatoes to exciting new heights — and that's not hyperbole.
The most natural place to begin your experience if you're a novice is by ordering one of the combination dishes. Both vegetarian and vegetarian-and-meat versions are available in smaller and larger sizes. Prices range from $16 on up to $33. When the food arrives on its silver platter, just a collection of petite heaps, it looks as though it wouldn't satisfy even the tiniest of appetites. But damned if it isn't bottomless.
Of course, the big reason these meals are so deceiving is because of the injera, the flatbread used to shuttle food from plate to pie hole. The spongy, stretchy, crepe-like pancake lines the platter and fills another basket, so you never run out. Its flavor is mild and nutty, with the slight tang that comes from fermentation. When every bite of food includes some bread, you quickly run out of room in the tank.
Before long, the movements become automatic, rhythmic. Tear, bundle, eat, repeat. There's cool and crunchy tomato, pepper and onion salad next to a warm and warmly spiced cabbage and potato mixture. Snow-white crumbly fresh cheese is flanked by garlicky chopped greens and tender yellow peas. Spicy chopped beef stew, garnished with fresh jalapeno and rosemary, is joined by mild beef stew and a chicken-based brew. There also are spreads built around chickpeas and red lentils. If certain dishes stand out as favorites, they can be ordered on their own on your next visit. If the server doesn't automatically deliver a dish of awaze, an earthy Ethiopian hot sauce made with berbere spices, ask for it.
Zoma, given its home in an aging strip on restaurant row in Cleveland Heights, could be cozier. Gracious owner Zeleke Belete has done what he could to warm up the space, including the addition of a few mesobs, the traditional tables built of woven straw, and a spot for coffee ceremonies. And the service could be less prickly and abrupt, especially necessary when dealing with a concept foreign to most of its diners. But it took Empress Taytu months, if not years, to iron out its kinks, and look how long they've lasted. If you hope to dine on the weekend, do everybody a favor and make a reservation. Management said that Saturday nights have been slammed.
The irony surrounding this millennia-old cuisine is that it has never been more in step with modern food trends. These days, all the buzz is around small plates, vegan and vegetarian options, and experiential activities. If those don't describe a night with friends around a large platter of interesting Ethiopian foods, I'm not sure what does.
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