Chicago offers a multitude of excellent ethnic food. Among the litany, a storied variety includes Ethiopian. There are three big players in this arena: Demera, Ras Dashen and Ethiopian Diamond. As with all purveyors of the food of proud and ancient cultures, their menus tend to be thick and impenetrable to the casual diner. Luckily, dear reader, you have me. So start off with a cocktail from Ras Dashen–I recommend a dry gin martini but specify that you want it stirred–and sit back and allow me to be your guide.
In general, there are only a handful of things you need to know before dining at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant. The first is that the seating arrangement is significantly different than traditional Western dining. You essentially sit in pillowed, slightly reclined chairs arranged around a knee-length table called a mesob, which has been explained to me as roughly translating to “eating basket.” There are generally no courses in Ethiopian dining, although I generally recommend getting a snack to start out with. Like many tropical and sub-tropical peoples, Ethiopians move at their own pace. Try the sambusa, which is a seasoned stuffing (usually beef or shimera–a seasoned whole chickpea) wrapped in pastry dough and deep fried and served with a dipping sauce.
Another critical item to know about is injera, the traditional Ethiopian sour bread served with most meals. Injera is eaten like naan would be in Indian cuisine although it’s closer to a thick crepe. The sour flavor is a result of fermenting the teff flour with yeast and water for several days, similar to sourdough. Unlike most yeast breads, the injera dough is a viscous liquid that is poured onto a charcoal-fired clay plate, called a mittad. The texture is very smooth but dense, soft and sponge-like.
Next, Ethiopian traditional stew, called wat, are a staple of the mesob. Most wats are made very similarly using the same technique and often the same spices, with the only variation generally being the protein and some vegetables. The spice used is generally a blend known as berbere–which has some heat to it due to the inclusion of chili powder–or straight turmeric for the milder wats. Tibs are the other staple, which are essentially a spiced meat and vegetable, generally sautéd but sometimes grilled. The meat–usually beef or lamb–usually comes out medium-rare to medium and beautifully browned.
My recommendations for the mesob in Ras Dashen (all of which are pictured above) are the spicy beef sega wat, made in a berbere sauce, and the doro alicha, a chicken and hard boiled egg stew made with turmeric, garlic, ginger, onions and green pepper. For tibs, try the grilled lamb variety with the house hot sauce. To lighten things up, try the komodoro salata, made with fresh raw cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and jalapeño. Everything will be served together atop a large piece of injera, with more injera on the side. Tear a piece from whichever location you prefer and dig in!
5846 N Broadway St
Chicago, IL 60660