By Micheal Hastings |

In the mood for something a little different the other week, I drove over to Greensboro to visit A Taste of Ethiopia.

I had been meaning try this restaurant for a while. It’s the only Ethiopian restaurant in the Triad.

Ethiopia, on the eastern coast of Africa near the Gulf of Aden, shares similarities in its cuisine with some of its neighbors. But its neighbors include African and Arab nations. Ethiopia’s position along the spice trade route from Asia has also left an impression on its cuisine.

A Taste of Ethiopia is run by two Ethiopian natives, Lulit Kifle and her mother, Azeb Senke. Kifle manages the restaurant, and Senke runs the kitchen. Kifle came to the United States in 2006 after her husband came here for college.

They opened the restaurant in Oct. 2013. Kifle said that there are a few Ethiopian immigrants in the Triad, but most of her customers are Americans.

Kifle said that she tells someone who has never tasted Ethiopian food “that it is full of flavor.” That’s to say that spices are used in most every dish. “If you like it hot, we can make it hot,” she said, but Ethiopian food is mainly about complex seasoning.

The core of that seasoning is the blend called berbere (pronounced bare baray) that typically combines cumin, coriander, cardamom, fenugreek, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

Ethiopians eat a lot of lentils and split peas, making it vegetarian-friendly. But beef, chicken and lamb also are on the menu.

Another key component to Ethiopian food is injera (pronounced en-jair-a). This is often described as flatbread, but it is more like what Westerners might call a wet, spongy crepe. It is made primarily with teff, a cereal grain native to Northern Africa. The restaurant mixes a little wheat in its injera. “But we can make it gluten-free by request,” Kifle said.

Injera is served with just about every dish for an important reason. The bread is used in place of utensils to help pick up bites of lentils, stew, sautéed meats and other food.

At dinner the other night, my daughter and I started with an order of beef sambusa. This is similar to a South American empanada or Indian samosa. It’s a triangle of crispy phyllo dough with well-seasoned ground meat. On the side was a delicious and very spicy chile dipping sauce.

Kifle suggested I try timatim fitfit, a cold salad of chopped injera with fresh diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeños, olive oil and lemon juice. The presence of bits of injera may seem strange to Americans, but bread salads are common throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. The overall effect of this salad was like eating a freshly made salsa — quite light and refreshing.

Next I had to try kitfo, which is Ethiopia’s version of steak tartare. Here the beef is finely ground so it’s smooth. Melted butter and a mixture of chiles are blended into the meat and it is served at room temperature with a bit of collard greens and Ethiopian cottage cheese on the side.

This kitfo was very spicy. Historically, it is said that cooks add chiles because they will kill off any germs in the raw meat. But I couldn’t get enough of it. The butter made this so rich and silky smooth, and the flavor of the chiles was fantastic. This is the kind of dish you’ll keep eating even when the fiery heat is blowing you away. It tastes that good.

Next, we ordered a sampler plate. The whole dish was served over a giant round of injera, and more injera was served on the side to use in picking up the food.

This had spicy split lentils, mild lentils and mild split yellow peas. It also had two of the famous Ethiopian wots, or stews. Doro wot is chicken leg in a spicy sauce with a whole hard-boiled egg. Kay sega wot is beef that has been marinated in red wine, also served in a spicy sauce. These sauces were medium-spicy, and they typically contain berbere and/or red chiles. They were similarly rich and flavorful.

On the side were collards, cabbage and Ethiopian cottage cheese. The latter reminded me of Mexican queso fresco.

With the meal, I sampled some tej, or mead made with honey and a plant called gesho. The tej I tried had all sorts of interesting aromas and flavors, including flowers, vanilla and even a hint of chocolate.

We finished off the night with rich Ethiopian coffee, poured from a traditional clay pot, and hot tea spiced with clove, cinnamon and cardamom. We also ordered some baklava, that same nut pastry served in Turkey, Greece and other countries.

I told Kifle that some of the dishes reminded me of Indian food because of the use of similar spices, and she agreed. “Indians like our food, and we like Indian food, too,” she said.

We not only tried some new foods, but we also learned about Ethiopian culture from Kifle and her staff. One waitress told us about how Ethiopians are so eager to come to this country that Ethiopian post offices sell lottery tickets for U.S. visas, a practice made possible by the U.S. State Department’s diversity visa program.

“Many Ethiopians are very poor,” Kifle said. “We are very lucky and we are grateful.”

Now Kifle and her family are pursuing the American dream with their own business.

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