Other immigrant cuisines have developed fancy American mash-ups. Todd Kilman and his group went to Addis Ababa to find out why there’s no artisanal doro wat.

By Todd Kliman |

On one side of the street, an old goat herder is guiding his dirt-flecked flock.

On the other, a young boy with short arms and no hands—only stumps—is begging me for money. “Crazy Addis,” says our cackling driver, who, before stopping at a light, was himself ripping through the chaotic city with an Italian cabbie’s blithe disregard for pedestrians.

Tsiona Bellete and I have just touched down in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Bellete, who runs a restaurant in Rockville, is making her first trip home in eight years, looking to reacquaint herself with the food she serves. As a food critic from America’s most Ethiopian-heavy city, I’m tagging along to learn something about that very same cuisine.

The first stop on our itinerary is lunch at Bellete’s brother’s house. Hurtling alongside the path of a new light-rail track that cuts through downtown like a crude scar, I catch a glimpse of the recently constructed African Union, towering over a nascent skyline filled with cranes.

Four decades after a military coup that toppled Haile Selassie, the emperor of 44 years, 15 years after a war with neighboring Eritrea, and nearly a decade after a government crackdown on free speech, Ethiopia is enjoying a period of relative calm. A somewhat more tolerant state-run government has emerged, and with it a renewed vision of establishing Addis Ababa as “the capital of Africa.”

But amid the forced march to modernity, many shops operate out of metal lean-tos, and utility outages are a fact of everyday life. It’s hard to tell whether Addis is a cosmopolis on the cusp of arrival or a city that might at any moment come undone. “I don’t know where I am,” Bellete says, gawking and tsk-tsking.

The last thing I am after the throttling drive is hungry, but that’s why I’m here—why we’re here. To eat.

Her brother’s cook brings out a pizza-size platter topped with a round of injera, the fermented, crepe-like bread, and begins heaping on stews like an artist dabbing paint onto her palette. The colors are varied and vivid—greens, yellows, reds, oranges—and I succumb, the subtly spiced dishes proving to be exactly the comfort food I need after a trip halfway around the world.

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