Thursday, April 30, 2009

Taste of Ethiopia...Or Not

For months--nay, years--I've heard about how great Ethiopian food is. I've heard rave reviews of Ferndale's Blue Nile and Southfield's Taste of Ethiopia--how different, how healthy, how very ethnic. Despite this, I've never done the Ethiopian thing; no particular reason, just haven't. So finally I decided to expand my gastronomic horizons to include this popular cuisine, and off I went to Taste of Ethiopia's second location in trendy Eastern Market.

Now. Restaurants in Eastern Market tend to be over-hyped and over-crowded as it is, largely because of Eastern Market's popularity amongst trend-conscious coinosseurs of locally-grown organic produce and those who wish to support the local agricultural movement in sustainable cuisine, and so on. Russell Street Deli is good and all, but to line up outside for anything other than a paczki seems preposterous to me, and there does come a point where a (eight dollar) corned beef sandwich is just a (eight dollar) corned beef sandwich. Vivio's? Overrated, right down to the watered-down Bloody Marys. Supino Pizzeria? Has mysteriously dodged the Eastern Market-ishness and has yet to see a line out the door on a sunny Saturday, though it is the only place where such a line would make sense. (Seriously--that pizza is really effing good.)

Walking into Taste of Ethiopia, I knew only that many veg-heads had raved about it and that it always seemed to be empty (when it wasn't outright closed). I had heard of that spongy bread called injera and that the food would be, uh, mushy and probably rather spicy. I also knew that Ethiopian food is all the rage right now, like sushi was some 7-ish years ago (and look what we did to that).

I found a place that was mostly empty--no big surprise there. The hostess/waitress/cashier/food preparer(?) recognized our lack of familiarity with the cuisine, though for someone trying to convince us to stick around she struck me as a bit aloof. The food is all served from a buffet, and I only discovered later that the food is actually prepared in the Southfield location and then trucked over. Which is, um, you know, gross. Mostly because (a) buffets are completely unsanitary to begin with, though if you're anything like me you can eat pizza 36 hours after it has been sitting out without being refrigerated and thus have an intestinal tract of steel, and (b) buffets are the absolute worst way to experience any cuisine, due to the loss of flavor and freshness from the whole storing/reheating process, the condensation and requisite degradation of texture and form as a result, as well as the sauces separating, cooling, and hardening from sitting out. In other words, gross.

These thoughts ran through my head as the waitress/server/hostess/bus girl waited to find out if we were going to order and a random woman nodded enthusiastically in approval and said, "It's really good."

Honey, you're really wrong. Now let's get something straight: I am ALL FOR ethnic cuisine. And while I can bemoan the lack of authenticity at any American restaurant purporting to be ethnic this-or-that, this gripe becomes increasingly irrelevant the more often it is used. What I don't like is when people jump on the ethnic this-or-that bandwagon simply because it's ethnic and it gives them some sense of self-satisfied cultural open-mindedness. (See: Thai, sushi, Indian.) Bottom line: just because it's ethnic doesn't mean it's good (or, more to the point, that it's a good representation of that particular ethnicity).

Case in point: the buffet at Taste of Ethiopia. The rice that was dried out. The chicken that was pink inside (and I don't know much about cooking, but I do know chicken IS NOT supposed to be pink inside). The lamb stew that was green. The fish that was really, really fishy (and no one wants to eat a fishy fish). In keeping with everything I've heard of Ehtiopian food, it's best to stay away from the meat, which is typically just stewed and then doused in spices.

Speaking of spices, I was under the impression that Ethiopian food, which is big on berbere (a kind of African all-spice with a red chile pepper base), would be, you know, spicy. Yeah, not so much. Everything I sampled was bland, except for the vegetable sambosas (a take on the Indian samosa which is more properly spelled as "Sambussa" when referring to the Ethiopian variety of this lightly fried triangular dough filled with vegetables and sometimes meat), which were dry but otherwise the only thing I was willing to fill up on for $9.45. There were also lentils (i.e., carrots and green beans), split peas and collard greens (both popular in Ethiopian cooking). It all looked like sludge. It didn't taste much better.

Traditional Ethiopian cuisine is consumed by scooping up the various sauces and stews with their special spongy flat bread called injera, which is made from a cereal grain and contains two to three times more iron than wheat or barley. The consistency is odd, and the bread (which is rolled up and kind of looks like a wet hand towel) has a slight tang that some say is reminiscent of sourdough, though I don't entirely agree with that determination. This bread was neither bad nor good; just spongy.

To take this restaurant as being representative of Ethiopian cuisine is an insult to Ethiopian cuisine, and I say that as a lesson to those who crave authenticity and who perhaps secretly in their heads were unimpressed by the place but didn't want to say so amongst their enthusiastic vegan friends. It's okay, guys: not liking the food at Taste of Ethiopia doesn't make you a close-minded white cuisinacist; it just means you have honest tastebuds. And while I can't overlook the appeal this place surely has for the veg-heads (Ethiopian food is heavy on vegetarian dishes, as they celebrate a number of fasting periods and meat restrictions in their country), as a happy carnivore I was left hungry and more than a little grossed out. And after speaking to a genuine bonafide for really-real Ethiopian, who said that he found the food there to be an offense to his culture and his people and he was personally insulted that people believe that it is authentic Ethiopian cuisine, I just know that I'm right in my supposition that this is not indeed the best thing since the California Roll. And at $9.45 for a lunch buffet, the price isn't all that tantalizing either.

One thing I did like about the place was the wall of hand-written compliments, which added kind of a fun vibe to the otherwise freakishly quite and sparsely drab environment. And free Wi-Fi is always nice, no matter where you go. Not to mention the authentic Ethiopian coffee and the Mango smoothies. If you're thirsty, stop in. Otherwise get in line at Russell Street Deli.

Taste of Ethiopia is located at 2453 Russell St. in Detroit, and also at 29702 F Southfield Rd. in Southfield. Hours vary by location; credit cards are accepted and both locations are BYOB. Above photos by Sean Gabriel Photography.