Choosing the name of the holiday month for their restaurant was a natural, says co-owner Alex Ayalew. "It is the best time of year," said the native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Meskerem Ethiopian Cuisine is the fourth restaurant of the Ayalew family. The first opened in Manhattan 12 years ago; two others are also in New York. "We thought the time was right to open in Charlotte," added Ayalew, who has been in Charlotte for the past five years. The family sampled the market here by selling street food during festivals.
Meskerem, located in mid-town on Kings Drive in a strip shopping center, is a small 50-seat spot which has hosted various ethnic restaurants and sandwich shops over time. Immediately inside the door are reviews from the New York area and an impeccably clean room with walls highlighted by ethnic kitsch, as well as Christian symbols. Large booths await diners. Near the kitchen is a small area where one can attend a coffee service ceremony (Ethiopia was the first culture to cultivate coffee), and eat in the traditional style with a mesab, a woven hourglass-shaped table surrounded by short stools.
In the kitchen is Tigest Ayalew, who manned the kitchens in New York before coming south. Although Ethiopian dishes are primarily stews, known as wats, the spice combinations are the key to variety in good Ethiopian cuisine. Berbere is a multi-dimensional chili mix which may be a 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 and the exact recipe is typically a highly prized family secret. No, they wouldn't tell me.
A mild condiment made from this spice mix is awaze, thickened with honey wine, and butter. If you want more pepper pow, order the dishes with Mitmita, the Ethiopian version of the three-alarm chili mix. Pork is forbidden in this culture, which is a mix of a Christian majority, Islam, and Judaism. Vegetarian dishes are important among the Christian population since Lent, and other religious holidays, are meat-free times. At Meskerem, the kitchen faithfully reproduces dishes that have been emerging from Ethiopian kitchens for centuries and are producing first-rate wats.
Ethiopians share communal meals. Appetizers are limited, but the Sambosa, a triangular savory ground beef filled pastry would please any empanada or samosa fan. Next came 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 grayish 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; tear off the bread and use it to pick up morsels of food and scoop up stews.
To this large round of injera our server added the dishes we had ordered. In the center she placed the Special Tibs, a lamb stew with awaze, honey wine, and slices of onions, tomatoes, and green peppers. Next she dotted the disk with the elements of the combo dish. Note that although the combo dish is listed in the "Poultry Section" of the menu, it is not a combination of the poultry items. This combo has Tib Wats, a darkly tempting beef chili stew, Gomen Besaega, a collard beef ragout, Miser Alecha, a mild lentil curry and Miser Wat a piquant lentil stew. Extra pieces of pliable injera were provided, but the injera which lines the tray is perhaps the tastiest since it soaked up the flavors of the stews. These dishes are surprisingly filling and the heat never obscures the weave of flavors.
Ayalew expects to serve Ethiopian honey wine in the next few weeks. Currently beer is a good choice to complement the food. And of course, there's coffee. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee: not having one here is the equivalent of not eating a croissant in Paris.
When I lived in DC, the Ethiopian restaurants in the Adams Morgan district were frequent haunts and favored spots to visit with friends. On one visit to Meskerem, the third Ethiopian restaurant to debut in Charlotte, I watched a large table of soon-to-be travelers experimenting with various food combinations. You can't understand a people and a culture until you eat your way through it. In Ethiopia, food is shared and enjoyed in groups, and dinner is a celebration of life and friendship. That's more than you usually get from a $10 entree.
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