This week we were assigned to try a New Food, and for a few days, I wasn’t sure how to approach the task.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try a specific ingredient I hadn’t used before, or a new cuisine, or a new restaurant, a new take on a familiar ingredient- The options were endless! But in the end, I decided to aim for a new cuisine.
However, I’ve sampled a fair bit of cuisine now. I’m not very well-versed in any specific genre of food, and the few cuisines I’ve stayed away from were out of immediate judgement on my part. So I looked at those cuisines that I was judging before trying, and challenged myself. I decided to go against the immediate “blegh” feeling I would get whenever I looked at plates of those foods, ignore the feeling of boredom, and I went for it.
I went out for Ethiopian.
Some might ask how I thought that could possibly be a boring food, some might not. But any time I have walked by an Ethiopian restaurant and looked at the menus in the windows, I’ve been underwhelmed by the photos of what looked like formless blobs of food on plates. It may have been that those photographs were poorly taken and didn’t do justice to the taste, but it wasn’t enough to sway me- until now!
My partner suggested a place he had been to before with friends, and off we went to the African Palace!
Located on Bloor near Dovercourt, I’ve walked by the place before, and it was always an establishment I’ve simply ignored. Nothing caught my attention, nothing really deterred me either, besides the fact that I had an idea of what kind of food it was, and it just didn’t excite me enough to try.
Like I said, I haven’t tried Ethiopian before, I’ve only judged it. Shame on me! After this meal, I will be going back regularly through the winter!
Stepping inside with my partner, we walked into a warm and cozy restaurant with just one other couple at a table (one out of maybe a dozen tables at most). We sat along the wall, myself facing the window and another seating of three wicker chairs with a tagine on the table.
Our server came over with a smile, and after a brief discussion on it being my first visit, gave us the run down of some of the dishes on the menu. We decided to try out the Meat and Vegetable platter for 2, and a Coffee Ceremony to finish off as dessert. This platter included:
Beef Tibs (Sauteed onion with tomato and peppers in awaze sauce), Dero Wot (a chicken dish in a berbere sauce), Yemisir Wot Red (lentils cooked in thick berbere sauce), Gomen Wot (Spinach & carrot cooked with onion, garlic & ginger), Tikil Gomen (Cabbage and carrot in a mild turmeric sauce, and probably my favourite part of this platter), Yekik Alicha (Yellow split peas with onion, garlic & turmeric), Azifa (Green lentils with onion, garlic, cumin & turmeric), Silsi (Tomatoes, Onions and Garlic in Berbere sauce, another favourite), and a simple green salad.
All of this was served with two small plates of Injera bread, an amazing sourdough flatbread made of Teff Flour (And it took me half of the dinner to realize as well that the plate in which all of these dishes came on was also covered by one massive Injera!).
At first when the food arrived, it was a mixed emotion of excitement and confirmation. The plate was set down with a well laid out arrangement of the edibles, all at first seeming formless and like piles of mush, like various thick chilli’s and stews. The bread, as well, looked plain and grey in colour. But then the magic began to happen.
As an avid sourdough baker at home, I was already a bit familiar with what Injera was, and when I had my first small nibble of the flatbread plain, the acidic tang of the culture hit my tongue with a familiar satisfaction. Before I could really dig into anything on the platter though, the chef came to our table-side, and offered to show us how to eat the food. Because, you see, there is one thing missing from the table: Utensils.
This food is meant to be eaten with your fingers, and this realization struck only when she tore a small piece of my partner’s Injera and began collecting a sample of everything on the platter- I hadn’t even noticed that there weren’t any forks! She explained, as she dabbed a bit into this and a bit into that, that it was custom to feed others in your group, as a gesture of friendship and love. And with that, she fed us both a sample of the food she had made for us, from her very own finger tips to our mouths! Surprising as it was, and certainly something you have to be open to, it made us both smile ear to ear as we had our first taste of probably the most comforting of foods.
As we sampled everything on our platter, we settled in for a relaxed evening. It was like a home made meal- comfort food, with a kick!
Nothing on the plate, save for the injera bread, was plain. It was spicy, full of flavour, but it didn’t burn my tongue. Some of the spice lingered, but it was welcoming on the cool, rainy day it was. The salad amidst the samples seemed a bit out of place, like an American/Canadian addition to blend into the area better, but it was ignored in favour of the tastier pieces around it. The seasoning was perfect, nothing screaming of salt or a lack thereof, and the flavours filled my palate without overwhelming me with heat or any bitterness of turmeric.
The dishes were all similar in texture, the exception being the Tikil Gomen (the cabbage dish) and the Gomen Wot (the Spinach): a thick, rich sauce coating the main ingredients (Be it the chicken, beef or lentils), spiced well and the perfect temperature to stay hot throughout the entire meal. The spongy and mild Injera, with just the hint of acid from the culture, was a lovely carrier and balanced these hardy dishes. It was an ideal meal, one that could energize anyone for the day. It reminded me of chilli I would make at home to use up what was left in the pantry, or “kitchen-sink” recipes to use up greens that were going to turn soon. The spinach, especially, reminded me of this, with the obvious taste of garlic and butter, cooked perfectly to avoid any bitterness that I would often find in overcooked greens.
Each dish shone on its own, each of their ingredients displayed well, but with that dance of spice around them. The tomato was sweet and acidic and tasted like a garden; the yellow pea was earthy and just barely al dente; and the cabbage reminded me of my many batches of sauerkraut at home that I would braise with meat. However, I learned that I have a hard time distinguishing between spices. I knew in eating this meal that there was a lot of seasoning done to each dish for a specific result, but it was hard to tell which was what. I’m a little familiar with spices like Turmeric (knowing it’s bitterness), but everything else was a mystery to me this time. Having looked up one of the reoccurring ingredients, Berbere, I see that there are a plethora of spices that I’ve hardly even heard the names of before (such as Koramira, Rue, Ajwain, Radhuni and Nigella amidst the familiar Chilli peppers and basil).
However, when everything had been picked off the main Injera Plate, I knew which dish was where when we started picking at the remaining flatbread. The injera absorbed all of the juice and sauce of the dishes on top of it, transforming it from a mere carrier to a dish on it’s own- it was like a second serving!
Part way through our meal, our chef came table side again to begin the Coffee Ceremony for us. It was amazing, how casual and yet close and intimate the experience had been so far, and now it was like this beautiful display for us. She came over with a small metal pot, blackened from intense heat and overuse. In this little pot she swirled around the coffee beans, roasting them right before our eyes, smoke billowing out and the wonderful toasting scent filling the air and making other patrons comment. She poured the beans from the pot into a small woven basket for us to see and take pictures of, and wandered back to the kitchen to finish everything up as we finished our meal.
When all was said and done, and the coffee was served with an incense of Frankincense and popcorn, it had become a romantic, familiar dinner. It was like going home and throwing together whatever you had in the pantry and having it turn out to be the perfect meal to feed your dearest. The world of spice we experienced was enlightening, and left me wanting to find out more about my palate in terms of sensing the differences between each spice. My entire palate was exercised, and even as we drank our coffee and discussed it’s well-rounded flavour profile, I could taste spice in the beans.
Sometimes it’s more about the atmosphere and tradition in something than the presentation, although the presentation in this case was fairly high standard, considering the incredible service we had. I will happily eat here again, and bring my family whenever they visit.