By Jenny Holm |

Don’t recognize that word on your dinner or drink menu? Sick of surreptitiously Googling at restaurants? Menu Decoder is your guide to obscure ingredients popping up on local dinner and cocktail menus.

D.C. has arguably the most vibrant Ethiopian restaurant scene in the nation thanks to the large population of immigrants from Ethiopia (and Eritrea) living in the area. Most of the Ethiopian dishes served in area restaurants come from the Gondar region of northern Ethiopia, the historic capital of the Ethiopian empire. Presentations and seasonings may vary, but the basic building blocks you need to know to navigate your way around an Ethiopian menu are pretty consistent:

Sambusa: A small pie stuffed with a spicy, savory filling and deep-fried. The filling might be lentils, spinach, potatoes, or ground meat, typically mixed with sautéed onions and spiked with green chilis.

Injera (in-JARE-uh): Spongy sourdough flatbread traditionally made from teff, a hardy grain native to Ethiopia and Eritrea. This is the backbone of most Ethiopian meals, doubling as both serving platter and edible scoop. Teff is gluten-free, but most D.C. restaurants make their injera from a mixture of teff and other types of flour, often wheat or barley, which are not.

Wot: Meat or vegetables stewed in a hot and spicy sauce, often made with berbere (see below).

Berbere (BARE-buh-ray): This is the spice mixture that defines Ethiopian cuisine. It comes in wet and dry versions and combines more than a dozen different ingredients, chief among which are ground red chili peppers, ginger, and cardamom. Other notable components may include seeds of the native plant koranma (also called false cardamom), nigella and ajwain seeds, and fenugreek.

Fitfit/firfir: Pieces of injera soaked in a meat or vegetable stew, usually flavored with berbere and seasoned butter (see below). Often served for breakfast.

Ethiopian/seasoned butter: This refers to butter that is first clarified (melted and with the milk solids skimmed off so it won’t smoke and burn at high heat), then mixed with various herbs and seasonings to flavor it, often including onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom, and fenugreek. In Ethiopia, the citrusy herb koseret is another common addition. This butter is known as niter kibbeh (in Amharic) or tesmi (in Tigrinya).

Alicha:vMeat or vegetables stewed in a mild sauce made with ginger, garlic, and onions but without berbere.

Tibs: Small chunks of meat sautéed in spices and seasoned butter.

Gored gored: Chunks of raw or rare beef seasoned with a spicy sauce or rub.

Kitfo: Lean minced beef mixed with mitmita (see below) and seasoned butter, typically served raw or rare (though many restaurants here will cook it longer if you prefer).

Mitmita: A red-orange spice mix that typically contains ground African bird’s-eye chilis, cardamom, cloves, and salt.

Gomen: Collard greens or cabbage, often cooked with onion, garlic, ginger, and peppers

Awaze: A spicy sauce made of ground chili, honey wine or water, seasoned butter, and spices

Tej: Sweet wine made from honey and flavored with a bitter herb called gesho, which comes from the buckthorn family

How to eat it: Ethiopians eat with their right hand. Rip off a hunk of injera and use it to scoop up a mouthful of meat, vegetables, lentils, or whatever else you may be eating.

Where to find it: Meskerem (2434 18th Street NW) in Adams Morgan is one of D.C.’s oldest Ethiopian restaurants, but the owners have put the building up for sale, so visit while you still can. Dukem (1114-1118 U Street NW) and Etete (1942 9th Street NW) were among the first Ethiopian restaurants to open on or near 9th and U Street NW, the area known informally as D.C.’s Little Ethiopia, in the 1990s and remain some of the District’s most popular spots for the cuisine. Keren (1780 Florida Avenue NW) gets less press but excellent reviews from customers. The relative newcomer Ethiopic (401 H Street NE) offers a fancier atmosphere than other places, while tinyZenebech (608 T Street NW) is no frills. For some modern twists on traditional Ethiopian favorites, head out to Sheba (5071 Nicholson Lane, Rockville, Md.), where Tsiona Bellete is experimenting with her native cuisine in tasty ways.

Source: DCist
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