Out of Africa

Did you know that grass of love is high in calcium and gluten-free?

No, the other grass of love — teff, the staple grain of Ethiopia. Even if you know and love the Ethiopian bread, injera, you may well not know that the scientific name of the grain, Eragrostis tef, comes from the Greek words eros (love) and agrostis (grass).

At Taste of Ethiopia, open since August, the temptation is not to dwell too long on the injera, good as it is, but to see it as simply the vehicle for delivering the various we’ts (stews) and t’ibs (sautés) to your mouth. The flavors cooked up by co-owner and chef Meskerem Gebreyohannes are so deep and so true, you may suspect you’ve never really experienced a lentil or a collard so intimately. You may start feeling a touch of Eroslentilis.

Gebreyohannes, who owned two restaurants in Toronto before moving here, produces dishes on a par with any Ethiopian food I’ve eaten, and at unbeatable prices. A meat-and-vegetable platter for two, with salad, costs $17-$19.25 — less than the price for one person elsewhere.

Although her red lentils, yemisir we’t, are cooked with berbere, a mix of 11 toasted spices plus garlic and onions, the flavor that shines through it all is pure lentility. Similarly, the vivid green collards taste simple and sublime, no matter what sophisticated techniques may have helped them become so.

I was equally fond of the sweet mixture of potatoes, cabbage and carrots seasoned with garlic, ginger and sesame oil, yatakilt we’t. Split peas and ground peas are the other vegetable choices.

Of the three dishes that make up the meat combination, lamb is the most interesting — pungent, sweetish and rich by turns. Beef and chicken are spicier, both made with berbere, and rather similar. If you order the chicken by itself rather than as part of the combo, it’s served with hard-boiled eggs.

Two of “Meski’s Special Dishes” also seemed very much alike and were intermittently tough: lamb and beef t’ibs. Both are cooked with rosemary and red wine and are gorgeous to look at, with bright green peppers and bright red tomatoes against a mahogany background. The simple salad that comes with them — lettuce, tomatoes and red onions — is made exceptional by its wonderfully light dressing, based on sesame oil and lemon juice.

I missed out on Gebreyohannes’ steak tartare tossed in spiced butter, kitfo, but for a good reason: It was the day after the holidays, she had no beef on hand fresh enough, and therefore declined to make the dish. No complaints there, but I will try it another day, along with those hard-boiled eggs.

The experience of eating Ethiopian is, of course, not just about the food. It’s the steaming washcloths, and sitting around the mesob (the traditional round wicker table) and, not least, the lack of flatware. Gebreyohannes augments the experience with a lively decor — black-and-white drawings of Ethiopian faces hung above comfortable green booths on warm yellow walls with red trim. Service is solicitous and gracious, and the chef is likely to come out of the kitchen to chat with her guests. Both times I visited, I got the mistaken impression that another party of diners was made up of friends of hers.

With only an estimated 500 Ethiopians living in the metro area, according to son Mike (Toronto has as many as 60,000), the Gebreyohanneses are wise to appeal to a broad clientele. They serve African-American and African regulars (although Ethiopian food is unlike any other in Africa), lots of Ethiopians on Wednesdays, and Sundays after church, and a mixed crowd on weekend nights.

I’ve always wanted to try an Ethiopian potluck at home. I’d be the boss and tell my friends what to bring, with recipes. Since it was my idea, I’d get to make the injera, like this:

1) Order teff flour from the Teff Company in Idaho (teffco.com).

2) Mix it — with my hands, of course — with water and a bit of yeast.

3) Let the batter rise and ferment. This is what creates the sourdough-like flavor and generates millions of tiny holes (“fermentation eyes”) that give the bread its spongy texture.

4) Pour the mixture onto a round pan over a low flame and cook briefly.

5) Serve. Instruct my guests that the Ethiopian authorities say, “It’s OK to grab or sample more than one dish on each scoop-trip.”

And maybe feed them, by hand, according to Ethiopian tradition. It’s a nurturing, affectionate gesture from a place that’s seen much hunger and knows the need to care for, and be cared for by, the extended family of man.

No booze, no smoking. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-8 p.m. Sunday.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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