By Eric Daeuber |
Fargo, ND—There are two things about Ethiopian cuisine that are immediately apparent to newcomers. Both of these are so important that you can’t have the experience without them. Both are different enough from what you might encounter in any middle American restaurant that they take some getting used to.
The first is injera, a spongy flat bread that is used as a base for every dish on the table. It’s made with teff, a grain that is fermented into a kind of sourdough that can leave the bread, well, really quite sour. Like any bread made from a sourdough starter, there are a lot of things that can impact the taste, but I have had injera that is overwhelmingly sour, and it can be hard on the palate of even the most adventurous novice diner.
Habesha makes injera fresh, and the sourness is more like that of an apple rather than that of vinegar. And, for the neophyte, that sets it up nicely for the next surprise.
There is no cutlery on the table. The injera is both bread and spoon. You eat Ethiopian food with your fingers, tearing bits of injera off the enormous piece on your plate and using it to deliver stews, salads, cooked vegetables and anything else you find under it, to your mouth. It’s awkward for some at first, but disarming and, ultimately, fun. If you’re under 10, it’s a blast.
After you come to terms with these two elements, the combinations and options in Ethiopian food are endless. There are dishes made of chicken, beef and goat, and vegetarian dishes of such variety that those sworn to meat each day may think they are missing something.
And this is a good place to start. The veggie sampler ($12) includes traditional lentil dishes mildly spiced with ginger and the gentle bite of cumin and turmeric in a potato and carrot stew. Simple greens blanched and seasoned with a little lemon and a touch of allspice, or so it seems, gave the entire dish a kind of autumn feel. It’s a hearty, filling and crazy inexpensive shot at near vegan dining for those who don’t own bib overalls.
A chicken dish, billed on the menu as a favorite of Ethiopians and Americans ($10), introduces berbere, a unique combination of spices that brings a little heat and a satisfying pungent aroma to the table. For my tastes, this is shown at its best in key wot ($10), slow stewed beef served with a salad that you eat, yes, with your fingers.
Appetizers, if there are any, are an afterthought. We ordered samosa, a fried pocket of ground beef, but it paled a little when compared to the main dishes.
Service is excellent and everyone is happy to share details on the menu. A few questions about injera led to a lesson on how it was made, what kind of grain is used and why it’s not as sour as others I’ve had.
The atmosphere is basic. Like other small ethnic diners in Fargo and Moorhead, Habesha is about putting real food on the table. It’s not entertainment. It’s authentic food from a culture in which the basics are valued and the ingredient are respected.
Prices are low, people are friendly, and the experience is unique, all to the point where dining at Habesha almost certainly stays fresh after any number of visits.
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