Feature photo by dcarlbom
My family is far too European for its own good. We eat pizza, including thin crust, with forks and knives. So when I thought it might be fun to broaden my family’s horizons and try the communal dining style of Ethiopian at an Uptown restaurant, where forks and knives are replaced with injera, a thin sourdough bread, this is the response I received:
“What do you mean, there aren’t any forks?”
The concept was beyond them. Every time I spoke with my mom the week before our dinner, the conversation eventually turned to something like this:
“So you can ask for a fork if you need one, right?”
Or: “But we all have colds! Should we really be sharing food with our hands?”
Or: “Can I bring my own fork?”
I refused to give in to the pressure. My husband was tickled by their nervousness. He had once taken me on a date to Medieval Times for the sole purpose of forcing me to eat with my hands. I was still awed and possibly a little irritated that the remains of my chicken leg were contained to a neat pile of bones and cartilage while his plate looked like the hyenas’ bone yard in The Lion King.
The fateful evening arrived and it is not an exaggeration to say that my parents were visibly nervous. While we are far from teetotalers, they were quick to order wine, especially for a Sunday night.
As we waited for my brother’s girlfriend to join us, we ordered a sambusa sampler plate. Sambusas are the Ethiopian form of the pastry-filled-with-meat-or-veggies, of which every culture seems to have a form. I suggested that we place our order for the agreed-upon family sampler of entrees but my father insisted we wait to order until Mary arrived; I’m pretty sure he wanted to see how the appetizers would play out first.
A plate of six sambusas arrived. I tore one into thirds and dipped it in hot sauce. My parents cautiously followed suit.
Mary arrived and the family-style entrée was ordered along with second glasses of wine. Then we were presented with the two-foot-in-diameter tin plate yielding spongy injera, topped with about 12 entrée options.
A moment of silence passed as they all took it in.
They waited as my husband ripped off a piece of injera and scooped up some spicy lentils. Then he took another piece of injera with some marinated beef. Each person started on his area of the large dish and it was quickly confirmed that no goat was on the table. (There had been earlier concern.) After a few minutes, my husband pronounced, “Switch!” and we spun the dish a quarter turn.
Finally the silence abated, and everyone found a favorite dish. Someone also requested some Ethiopian hot sauce. The manager brought both a hot sauce and a type of chili powder, which my brother found to be painful if it stays on the lips for too long unless quickly cured by Ethiopian beer; the beer was deemed universally more satisfying than the Ethiopian honey wine from earlier in the evening.
By the end of the meal, my parents were eating the salad at the center of the dish with their bare hands, though they made sure to mention that our next meal out could be more suburban.