How to break an Easter fast like an Ethiopian

A typical Ethiopian meal during the Easter fasting period. Photo by Maurice Chédel.

A typical Ethiopian meal during the Easter fasting period. Photo by Maurice Chédel.

(COMMENTARY) The smell of fresh injera, a sourdough flatbread used as the base for Ethiopian meals, wafted up my nose. It was another reminder of how hungry I was. As I walked through the entrance of Queen of Sheba, that hunger manifested itself audibly in the form of a deep, drawn-out grumble.

The Ethiopian restaurant’s hostess chuckled at my look of embarrassment before exclaiming, “Good time to eat!” She led my friend and I to a table and handed us menus, then promptly left to greet another group of four that had just entered the place.

The restaurant’s environment in Midtown Manhattan is cozy. Tables all arranged close to one another and conversations overlapped fortuitously. On the wall to the right of where I was seated was a mural depicting Mekeda, the Queen of Sheba. Ancient stories, as told in the Old Testament and other cultural legends from the region, identify her as the Ethiopian queen who traveled to Jerusalem to pursue King Solomon. Their child, King Menelik, would become the founder of the famed Solomonic dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire.

In Book of 1 Kings 10:2, for example, Mekeda arrived in Jerusalem with “camels laden with spices, gold in great quantity, and precious stones.” Even to the Queen of Ethiopia, spices carried significant value, similar to gold and precious stones. While the Old Testament does not reveal what spices were offered to Solomon, there is only one spice that is key to essentially every Ethiopian dish: berbere.

Debrawork Abate, author of የባህላዌ መግቦች አዘገጃጀት (Traditional Food Preparation in Amharic), writes that berbere is an indigenous super-spice that typically includes a mixture of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, rue, ajwain, nigella, fenugreek, and corrorima. It is an integral ingredient used to make wot, which is the stew eaten alongside injera in almost all Ethiopian cuisine.

It is worthy to note that over 60% of Ethiopia’s population is Christian (predominantly Orthodox Tewahedo) and fast over 210 days out of the year. Berbere plays a major role in providing some flavorful taste and a kick during the intense fast observance periods. Between the super-spice and injera (which is high in amino acids, protein, calcium, and iron), fasting Ethiopians are able to overcome the challenges of a long-term, ultra-lean diet. With Fasika (Easter) right around the corner, Ethiopians have undoubtedly enjoyed the benefits of injera and berbere throughout the current 56-day fast.

Nonetheless, several more pieces of cultural artwork and illustrations decorated the honey-yellow interior common to traditional Ethiopian establishments. The presentation of the restaurant – relatively basic for the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood – did a fantastic job of simulating an Ethiopian migib-bait’s (eatery) experience. As I explained some of the adorning artifacts to my friend Noelle, the hostess returned for our order.

For an appetizer, we went with sambousas, which are triangular phyllo-dough pockets stuffed with lentil or meat. These snacks are comparable to Indian samosas. We also ordered the tibs wot entree, described by their menu as “diced lean beef seared on a hot skillet [and] slow cooked in a hot berbere stew.”

Because of my affinity for misir wot—which are “split lentils stewed with onion, garlic, and a blend of Ethiopian herbs”—I asked for it to be added on the side. Although it was technically its own vegetarian entree, the hostess accommodated my request by adding the stew to the same injera base as the tibs wot.

I later discovered that we were not charged additionally for it. Maybe it was because of the hostess’ surprise at my ability to speak Amharic or perhaps it was because I revealed that it was my favorite dish. In the end, the entire meal, with a $5 tip, cost us a little under $30! The price made for a major bargain – especially for New York City!

The food itself was actually pretty good. I have been blessed enough to grow up in a household with an inaht — mother — who not only knew how to cook unlike anyone else, but also cooked every day. I cannot remember a day from my childhood without Ethiopian food at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table. While Queen of Sheba could not compare to my inaht’s “chefery” (I openly admit to having bias here), the dishes were fantastic in their own right.

The sambousas, a childhood favorite of mine, were perfect. The hostess brought a sweet and spicy sauce that complemented it very well. While I had never eaten sambousas with an accompanying sauce, the combination worked well.

As for the main entree, the injera was a bit more sour than my mother would make it, a byproduct of a longer fermentation period. The tibs wot was everything I expected. The beef was succulent and the stew was spicy enough to my liking. Noelle, on the other hand, preferred the misir wot due to its relative mildness. While I too enjoyed the misir, the herbs used to make the lentil stew must have varied in either quantity, ratio, or perhaps selection. All I knew was that it tasted noticeably different than what my inaht would make.

After feasting and talking for a solid 20 to 30 minutes, Noelle and I asked for the leftovers to be packed before grabbing the bill. The food and environment were a pleasant surprise, especially for an Ethiopian with a high standard for my culture and food. The restaurant could have definitely used a few more workers. Overall, I would highly recommend checking out Queen of Sheba.