Ethiopian cuisine means spicy, communal eating

click to enlarge Haiget A Yosef brings Ethiopian and Kenyan cuisine Chicken Tibs with three sides, mango salad, gomen/sukamawiki, and yedenich wot to the mesob woven serving table. (Shannon Cornman)
Shannon Cornman
Haiget A Yosef brings Ethiopian and Kenyan cuisine Chicken Tibs with three sides, mango salad, gomen/sukamawiki, and yedenich wot to the mesob woven serving table.

To describe Ethiopian cuisine, one first needs to look at geography: the highlands of Northeast Africa, running through most of Ethiopia, have a temperate climate, and the region was one of the earliest stops in the spice trade for Arabian and Persian traders.

With the mountains creating a natural isolation barrier to outside influences, Ethiopian cuisine became quite unique. The region is one of the few places worldwide where teff grain — the main ingredient in injera bread, an important part of almost every meal — is grown.

The most beloved dishes in Ethiopian cuisine are wots and tibs. Wots are spicy meat or vegetable stews, and not all are necessarily fiery. Tibs are bite-sized bits of stewed meat sautéed in clarified butter with vegetables.

Commonly, the injera is served on a large platter, and the selected wots, usually four to eight, are placed on top of the injera. This meal is served on a mesob, a colorful, woven basketlike table people sit around on low stools for the communal meal.

Eating without utensils is the proper way of Ethiopian dining. Using your right hand, fold a small piece of injera around bits of stew and eat it without touching your fingers to the stew or to your mouth.

click to enlarge Queen of Sheba formal dinner setting. (Shannon Cornman)
Shannon Cornman
Queen of Sheba formal dinner setting.

Friends and family

An endearing act of friendship and love in Ethiopian culture is gursha, which involves the custom of feeding others, usually twice, at a meal. The larger the gursha (injera wrapped around stew), the deeper the love or bond.

You can feel the relaxed familial warmth as soon as you enter Haiget’s Restaurant, 308 W. Edmond Road, in Edmond.

“In Ethiopian culture, we often work together and help each other as a family, so when we have our evening meal, it’s our time to come together and relax,” said owner Haiget Yosef.

Haiget’s is a family affair; Haiget’s mother makes the injera daily.

Sit at the traditional mesob table, and start with the Ethiopian shai tea ($2.50) spiced with cloves and cardamom and served with accompanying mandazi sweet fried bread. Then it’s on to the black pepper spiced chicken tibs ($11.99) with three vegetarian sides (there are 17 to choose from). The refreshing mango salad is mixed with cilantro, diced red pepper and a dusting of chili powder. Savory gomen wot is a homestyle dish of kale sautéed with onions, tomatoes and garlic. Paired with all of this, select the yedenich wot — carrots and potatoes cooked with onions, ginger and garlic — to round out a traditional dinner.

When you walk in and see artwork depicting the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, you know you are at Queen of Sheba, 2308 N. MacArthur Blvd. After being greeted with a hot towel to freshen your hands, start with a traditional appetizer of sinigg karia ($1.49), a chili pepper stuffed with seasoned tomato, onion and herbs.

Then choose the Queen of Sheba Mesob ($14.95). You won’t be disappointed with the stunning sampling: beef, chicken and lamb wots and tibs with an array of chickpea, potato and carrot and green bean wots. Order the fragrant vegetarian sambusas ($4.50), fried pastry with lentils and green chilies, to-go for later. You won’t have room for it at the restaurant — trust me.

Etiquette: How to eat Ethiopian food

1. Clean your hands before eating, as food is served communally. 2. If you’re visiting somebody’s home for dinner, follow his or her lead. If they remove their shoes, remove yours as well. 3. Greet guests individually, moving from oldest to youngest. 4. If there are elders, allow them to begin eating first. 5. It’s OK; eat with your hands. 6. Using your right hand, scoop the stew from the dishes using pieces of injera bread instead of using silverware. 7. You may also use your cupped right hand to serve yourself directly from the shared dishes. 8. As in America, it is considered rude in Ethiopian culture to reach across the table. You can share the dishes closest to you. 9. If you’re with someone you care about, it’s a sign of friendship and love to feed them bites of food. 10. If you’re at somebody’s home, it’s polite to leave a bit of food on the plate to let your host know you’re full.

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