Saturday, August 15, 2009

Adventures in the Horn of Africa

When I lace up my shoes for work, I'm not going for any kind of statement. So when I needed a replacement pair recently, I headed to the Silver Spring DSW - where the plain, cheap loafer is perfectly constructed for the government employee just looking to fit in.

Shoe-shopping works up an appetite. With a box of new and shiny yet unmistakably conventional shoes in hand, I left DSW in search of a meal more interesting than my footwear selection. It was my first time in downtown Silver Spring, but its reputation for ethnic foods preceded it.

Taste of Morocco on Colesville Rd was alluring, but I settled on Abol, an Ethiopian place a few blocks away. The cuisine of the Horn of Africa has had the attractive force of a magnetic field over me ever since, well, the Horn of Africa - a food cart in Portland where a red lentil stew left me like an alphabet letter longing for a refrigerator door.

Inside Abol, I noticed a City Paper review that rated the restaurant one of the top 50 joints in the DC area. Abol, it said, means "authentic" or "original." I checked my shoes at the door and grabbed a table.

But the waitress/co-owner, Birtukan, and I got off to a rocky start. I wanted to order the very last item on the menu, the kuanta firfir - dried beef sauteed in berbere sauce and mixed with pieces of injera. Birtukan was against it.

"You will not like it," she said. "Trust me!"

"Okay, okay," I said. "But why won't I like it?"

"You just won't!"

The more she resisted, the more curious I became. Her broken english was emphatic but less than cogent. I told her that if she didn't let me order the kuanta firfir, I would go to another restaurant. Defeated, she stomped sullenly back to the kitchen to relay my order to the cooks.

The kitchen produced the dish quickly, and Birtukan placed it on my table with one last look of disapproval.

I peeled back a covering layer of injera expecting the worst. At the same time, I was intent on proving my exotic palate to Birtukan no matter what. I would finish whatever atrocity of Ethiopian cuisine she had tried to protect me from.

But underneath the injera there was nothing festering or discolored or slithering. Just dried beef with pieces of injera soaked in spicy berbere.

Still, Birtukan watched me anxiously as I took my first bite, probably waiting for me to grimace or spit it out. But the dried beef was crispy like bacon. Actually, it was slightly chewier, which was fantastic because it gave me more time to enjoy the smoky, blended flavors of chili pepper, coriander, and ginger. There will be no justice as long as we as a society allow naive Westerners like the one who ordered this dish before me - and protested it enough to psychologically scar Birtukan - the privilege of continuing to dine at Ethiopian restaurants.

"Excellent," I said to Birtukan from across the dining room. I saw her smile for the first time, beamingly.

Her husband, Belete, visited my table and explained that Ethiopians consider kuanta firfir to be a light meal and typically have it for breakfast. I admitted that as a Westerner I wasn't crazy about the idea of eating dried meat for breakfast, but lunch and dinner were another story.

Belete was quick to reward my enthusiasm for his food. At no charge, he gave me an extra side of yefasolia - string beans and carrots cooked with vegetable oil, tomato, garlic, ginger, and green peppers.

As if my visit to Abol wasn't already rewarding enough, as I was leaving the restaurant, I realized the significance of discovering the City Paper's Top 50 list: my guide to DC dining for the foreseeable future. I have now marked my refrigerator door with a printed copy of this list. If Julie Powell can cook 524 Julia Child recipes in one year, Marcy and I can go to 50 DC restaurants by March. The standard's been set high for the other 49.