Exploration of culture by way of curious palettes. On today’s menu, it’s all Ethiopian.
On a stop for lunch, we visit one of NYC’s gems – Injera Restaurant, for some traditional Ethiopian cuisine and a mini lesson on the deliciously spicy fare of Ethiopia with the owner, Roman, who owns the restaurant with her husband.
HOM: We love the location of your restaurant! The West Village usually has so many of the same places, it was great to see Injera here to mix it up. Tell us more about your decision to be in the village.
INJERA: There are 8 million people in NYC and there are only about 12 Ethiopian restaurants; they are all in different neighborhoods. The West Village never had ethnic food ever; my sister grew up here and she never saw any ethnic restaurants. This is why we decided to actually open Injera in the West Village. We were very happy when we opened and realized there are a lot of people with adopted Ethiopian children. A lot! We started to have a bunch of children come with their parents to eat here, so that the children would be familiar with their culture’s food. Lots of kids also like it because they eat with their hands.
HOM: Dining etiquette varies across the globe. Tell us about why Ethiopian food is best eaten with hands.
INJERA: We always eat with our hands, it is uncomfortable to eat Ethiopian food with a knife and fork and majority of the people end up eating with their hands. They ask you for a knife and fork because they don’t know how to eat it but we tend to go and explain to everybody, “this is the easy way to eat it.” You can easily grab the food with the bread, it is more comfortable. It’s like if you think about the French crepe, you know, usually they fold it and then you just eat it with your hands.
HOM: Do people come in and ask for forks? Do you serve food with forks as an option?
INJERA: The majority of the time, those who ask for forks are our Indian customers. I think the idea is because Indian food is served in small plates but ours we serve on one big plate because our bread is flat and large. Our Indian customers take it from the big plate and put it on a smaller plate, so it is closer to their tradition, I suppose. But yes, we will give you utensils if you ask for them!
HOM: What are your favorite Ethiopian dishes? Why?
INJERA: Shiro! (Author’s note: #same) Millions of Ethiopians eat it. It’s made from chickpeas. They make flour from chickpeas and mix it with different spices. Then they grind it and cook it and it becomes a porridge. It’s so good and very healthy. I love the spicy lentils also, and I love the Gomen. Since I gave up meat, I made Tuna Kifto – a rendition of a meat dish, just with tuna since I still eat fish. Kitfo, in Ethopia is eaten raw. It’s similar to steak tartare from the French, and the raw beef made with special spices. You eat it with cottage cheese and spinach mixed together with the spices next to it. With tuna, I don’t miss the taste of the meat and can still experience Kifto.
HOM: On your website it says that you serve the best quality beef and poultry, but you mention you are vegetarian. Since Rastafarians are people of Ethiopia, and many are vegan, we had questions right away on the meat consumption. Can you give us background to this?
INJERA: The majority of Ethiopians are meat eaters. Jamaicans love Ethiopia so everyone misunderstands. Africa in general is crazy for meat. However, African countries have a large amount of veggies, because we are Christians and we don’t eat pork and all of the Christians fast twice a week. Every Wednesday and every Friday, nobody eats meat. Maybe 3 or 4 times a year there is a longer fasting; an Easter fasting, which is longer than the European fasting – like 8 weeks or so. Because of that reason we have huge Vegetarian dishes. Another reason for the veggies, is that the majority of Ethiopians are poor and the only people who can afford to eat meat regularly are wealthier people. The poorer people may eat chicken once a year when there is a big holiday. Religion and social state has a lot to do with why we focus on vegetable based dishes. But, overall – Ethiopians love meat.
HOM: I read a great deal on how making Injera can be a long process. Can you elaborate more on the behind the scenes of this healthy and delicious bread?
INJERA: Every household in Ethiopia only eats this kind of bread. We’re the only country in Africa that doesn’t eat rice. We eat everything with our bread. The process is long, the batter has to sit for 4 days! This is the way it works – you make dough and beat it really, really well and start thinning it out with the yeast. From there, the batter is fermented for 3 or 4 days. We save the fermentation for the next time we make the bread. The grain we use is Teff, it’s only indigenous to Ethiopia and it’s the smallest grain in the world, and it is gluten free. The only problem is that when it comes through from anywhere else besides Ethiopia it is hard to make it 100% gluten-free. Ethiopia is 2,600 ft. above sea level, so Injera comes out easier when it’s there. We make it work, and can provide Gluten Free Injera but it is not easy.
HOM: I read that Berbere is a very common spice. What is your favorite Ethiopian spice?
INJERA: Berbere is to Ethiopia as curry is to India. It’s the most common spice. It is composed of large chillis, sundried garlic, sundried onions and a lot of spices – we put it together and make it into a powder. And then we cook with it all day. All the red dishes you see have Berbere on it.
HOM: Where can we purchase it here?
INJERA: In the US you have to check the Internet or, there is an Indian shop that sells Berbere on Lexington and 28th.
HOM: For those just getting into Ethiopian food, do you have any advice on how people can cook with Ethiopian spices?
INJERA: To be honest, the best way to learn how to cook it is YouTube. YouTube is crazy. YouTube is good because there are so many different people from Ethiopia or who are Ethiopian that show you! As for spices to start cooking with, I recommend starting with Tumeric in your everyday cooking. We use a lot of Tumeric, which is also popular in India. I actually drink the Tumeric and will put it on my skin with a little honey. It’s got amazing qualities. More spices to cook with are Garlic or Ginger. If you want spicy, Berebere is the way to go.
HOM: What more should we know about Injera Restaurant here in NYC? Do you do parties? When are the best times to come?
INJERA: We tend to get super busy and it’s such a tiny place. A lot of people like to come for birthdays and that’s why we created the lounge area. We do tell people to make a reservation because it’s impossible to seat everybody. When the place is small you have more time to care for people, though. When it’s big, it loses that. My husband and I work here every single day. We have a very close relationship with the neighborhood people because we have a lot of people that come back twice a week or three times a week. We take care of everybody as if they are in our house!
Big thanks to Roman and her lovely team for having us in to experience some of the best, most flavorful dishes we’ve ever had. We’ll be back soon for some Gomen, Shiro, and more.
11 Abingdon Square