Meals at Red Sea, it seems, happen at their own leisurely pace, and when you’re finished with your food, you don’t rush things. You do what comes naturally – you talk.

By Andrew Ross |

I once asked my friend Ababa why she thought her region’s cuisine – perhaps more than any African cooking except Moroccan – had become so popular in the United States. “That’s easy,” she responded, “Ethiopian food is like that terrible cheese pot you all eat here.” “Fondue?” I asked, bemused. “Yes. You can’t eat that without being social. Our food is the same way. It forces you to talk, but it tastes a lot better than a bowl of cheese,” she said.

Regardless of how you feel about melted Gruyere, she had a point. It’s nearly impossible to imagine sitting in silence around a big common platter of thick vegetable stews and meats, tearing rough, irregular pieces of spongy, slightly sour injera bread and eating with your hands. Talking, whether to ask permission to dip into the lentils or to grab the one lonely, sauce-kissed hard-boiled egg, is as much a part of the meal as the dishes themselves.

No surprise then that Yemane Tsegai, co-owner and manager of Washington Avenue’s Red Sea Restaurant in Portland, is a big proponent of dinnertime chatter. “It’s how you keep your culture from generation to generation or share your culture. You eat, you talk,” he said. The meter-wide family-style platters of finger food prepared by his wife, co-owner and chef Akbret Batha, certainly grease the wheels of conversation in the garish but cheerful, six-table yellow dining room, especially if you happen to be visiting with someone who has never eaten Ethiopian or Eritrean food before.

But all the conversations at Red Sea aren’t about novelty – there is just as much to say about the quality of the food, which is, on balance, very high. Batha is at her best with her spiciest dishes, made with her own personal spice blends, including both dry and wet versions of traditional berbere. Compounded from cumin, jalapeño, garlic and Ethiopian black cardamom (along with a few other secret ingredients), Batha’s berbere sings with nutty, smoky flavors and stings with arrow points of fiery heat.

Continue reading this story on The Maine Sunday Telegram (Portland Press Herald)
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