When time turns to thoughts of lunch (for me, that is usually before breakfast), one of my first dreams is always of a good Ethiopian combo plate. If you are a vegetarian and haven’t tried this cuisine, you should run, not walk! It has everything you could want: it is crazy cheap, filling, nutritious, super-tasty, and there are lots of 100% veggie options.
The basic starch of Ethiopian food is a bread called injera. It is traditionally made from teff flour, not wheat so it could be good for folks who don’t eat gluten – but be sure and ask because apparently some restaurants substitute part or all wheat. The dough is fermented and then baked into big, holey, spongy and slightly sour flatbreads which can be served warm or at room temperature. As you can see in the picture above, one injera is always served under the food, as a sort of delicious plate that soaks up the flavors and is savored last. A bunch more injera are served on the side to scoop everything up.
Ethiopian food is almost always served family style, with a big plate in the middle, and you eat with your hands and the bread. Of course if you really want individual entrees and a spoon to eat with, I’m sure they’ll take care of you, but a lot of the joy is in the communal meal. Naturally kids love this. The grownups are eating with their hands! Customarily you use only your right hand to eat (reserving the left for less sanitary purposes). Believe me, that is much easier to do with nice soft injera to tear than it is in India, where the nan requires a deft maneuver
As to the dishes themselves, the basic vegetarian items are usually a few types of lentil stews (wots), some mild (alicha) and some deeply spiced, long-cooked greens, cabbage and potatoes, and a salad. There are usually a few other vegetable choices, and maybe a different salad of torn up injera and tomatoes which is a type of fit-fit that can be quite nice. At least until you become familiar with the dishes, you should go for a veggie combo plate. Individual entrees are usually around 8 bucks, but the combo plate you see pictured above (at Assimba) is $11 and is easily enough for two meals (or to feed two people at one sitting).
I believe the vegetarian dishes and the injera are all vegan as well, but if that is important to you, be sure and ask.
Many US cities have concentrations of Ethiopian immigrants and their restaurants. Seattle is especially lucky in this regard. On and near Cherry Street between say 12th and Martin Luther King are at least eight options. Below you will see my current favorites. The food is great at all of them. Ras Dashen is the newest and has the nicest decor. Meskel has a lovely deck for eating outside in the summer. Assimba has great flavors and is really fast, and Cafe Selam across the street is tiny and homey, with really warm folks running the place. They also do breakfast, which is another realm of deliciosity with fascinating bowls of fool beans with eggs and tomatoes and crusty french rolls. But I digress!