Traveling Through Food: Ethiopia

In a perfect world, I would be bi-coastal, living and eating in both Los Angeles and New York, and I would punctuate those moments with open-ended treks across the globe, taking my time to sample all of the incredible food the peoples of this planet have to offer.

It is not a perfect world.  But ... because I live in a cosmopolitan mecca where the peoples of the planet flock, I am lucky to enjoy the perfect compromise of traveling through my food.  India.  Italy.  Thailand.  Peru.  Some of my most memorable meals have been ethnic — a new spice, a new texture, a new dish.  It's like Christmas morning.  A true exploration for me.  And the hotter the better.

MERKATO EHTIPIAN RESTAURANT: Chicken Doro Wot and Vegetable Combination Plate.
A favorite adventure has been my culinary trip to Ethiopia, via (conveniently enough) Little Ethiopia, which runs along Fairfax in the heart of Los Angeles.  Full of heat and spice, yet also delicate and nuanced (like Merkato's Chicken Doro wot and buttered cabbage, respectively), Ethiopian food is a tactile experience, built around a tangy, spongy flat bread called injera.  It is truly unlike anything I've ever had in other cuisines — which made me love it instantly.

Most dishes are served atop this crepe-esque bread, which gorgeously soaks up the various sauces and flavors, and instead of utensils, you are served a separate plate of injera, rolled up and piled high.  With it, you scoop up the various lentils, stews, vegetables and salsas.  It's remarkably fun, interactive, and delicious.  I'm not gonna lie ... I'm obsessed with scooping up the juice-soaked injera after I've polished off the vibrant tomato salsa and licking it off my fingers.  Anything that lets you do that in public is just freakin' awesome.

Though the dishes may look similar (even unremarkable), the differences between a beef stew and a simmered pork dish are quite distinct.  The depth of flavor in the spice mixtures is just unmatched — the combination of ginger, garlic and peppers makes even vegetables stand up to entree status.  Add a good Ethiopian beer like Hakim Stout, also unique in its flavor, and any Ethiopian meal will truly transport you to a place and a culture to which most have little ready access.

My favorites?  Almost anything at Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant, followed by Messob, across the street.  The Doro Wot (a long-simmered chicken and pepper stew) at Messob was superior to Merkato, but the lentils and vegetables at Merkato made me want to cry.  I have yet to try Meals by Genet, which I am told has the best Doro Wot in Los Angeles.  That's my next culinary trip ... and happily all I have to do is drive over the hill to get there.


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