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Out Of Africa

Share a meal at an Ethiopian restaurant

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My son is studying the countries of Africa in his elementary school class. Since sampling indigenous cuisine provides many insights into a culture, we elected to journey to Ethiopia -- well, a local Ethiopian restaurant, that is.

Ethiopia is better known for political upheaval and drought than for its cuisine, but the food of Ethiopia reveals some of the history of this landlocked country that was, for thousands of years, a trading route. Chilies from the west and spices from the east combine to produce boldly flavored Ethiopian dishes.

On the evening we entered Ibex Ethiopian Restaurant, the dining room was eerily quiet with only the sound of Peter Jennings reciting the days events from a television tucked in the corner of the room. The 72-seat Ibex, which opened December 1, is Charlotte's second Ethiopian restaurant. To the right of the entrance is the 12-seat basket room where frankincense is burned, and you can attend a coffee service ceremony (Ethiopia was the first culture to cultivate coffee). Here you can eat in the traditional style with a mesab, a woven hourglass shaped table surrounded by short stools. The sparse central dining area is filled with tables, and a back room contains booths.

Ibex is owned by partners Dawit Getahun and Emuhaie Melkie. Gethun manages the front of the house. Melkie, a nurse by training, is a one person show in the kitchen. She learned to cook from her mother and noted that cooking in Ethiopia is a woman's responsibility. Recipes are passed down from mother to daughter. One family recipe she uses is for berbere, an red pepper blend of chili peppers, shallots, and as many as 15 spices, which may include ginger, turmeric, salt, coriander, cumin, cloves, cardamom, allspice, fenugreek, cayenne, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. Berbere is the base for many stews. Ethiopian dishes may seem simple, but the spice complement is complex with Martha Stewartesque time consumption to prepare.

Ethiopians share communal meals. We started with an assortment of Sambussa, a savory filled treat similar to an Indian samosa. These were overtly greasy pastries filled with tasty mixtures of chicken and lentils. Next up was a table-sized platter covered edge to edge with a thick spongy piece of injera, the well known Ethiopian flat bread made from teff, a very small grain. Injera, which has the look of a pancake with a greyish cast, is surprisingly very sour but is not meant to be eaten alone. When soaked in the earthy sauces of the stews, injera provides a perfect counter to the heat. Injera is also your utensil, since this bread is torn off and used to pick up morsels of food and scoop up stews.

To this large round of injera our server added a variety of dishes we had ordered. In the center he placed the Doro Fitfit, a chicken stew with one falling-off-the-bone tender chicken leg, a hard boiled egg, and large pieces of injera mixed in. Next he dotted the disk with some Yebeg Tibs (cubed lamb which proved tough), Yesmisir Alich'a (a piquant lentil curry), and Kik Alich'a (a mild yellow split pea ragout). Last, he added a portion of Gomen We't or collard greens. Note that no pork was used to season the collards, since pork is forbidden in this culture (a mix of a Christian majority and Islam and Judaism). Extra, cut rolls of injera were provided, but the injera which lines the tray is perhaps the tastiest since it soaked up the flavors of the stews.

Beer and water are the drinks of choice for Ethiopian food as is Tej, an ancient honey-based wine. Ibex offers some wine and a variety of beers. Ethiopian beers are $3.50 and a glass of Ethiopian wine is $5.

The menu also offers a tomato fitfit salad ($2) and 27 dinner entrees including seven vegetarian dishes, chicken stews and curries, lamb stews and curries, beef stews, and chopped beef. A vegetarian combo of four dishes is $8.95 and a non-vegetarian combo is $15.95. Entree prices range from $7 for a vegetable stew to $14 for beef ribs. A lunch buffet is offered for $5.99. Frequently a reggae band plays on Sunday from 9pm until 2am, and an Ethiopian band from DC will perform Ethiopian music on Friday, May 17.

Some parents are reticent to expose their children to ethnic cuisines because they say their children are picky eaters or ethnic food is too spicy. But there is much to be learned and a lot of fun to be had from an evening scooping up a variety of stews -- some spicy, some not -- with a spongy pancake. Besides, great food is nice. But a great night is better.

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