Katherine Russell: Sharing flavors, Ethiopian style - The Buffalo News

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Katherine Russell: Sharing flavors, Ethiopian style

I recently read a blog post titled: “10 Ways to Snack at Work Without Having to Share.” By the article’s advice, coworkers will be sneaking Goldfish out of their drawers when no one is looking, avoiding any suspicion by placing a bowl of hard licorice candy at the end of their desks as a decoy.

As humorous as the article was, it pointed to a cultural tendency we don’t often acknowledge: Americans don’t like to share their food.

I grew up knowing full well to “keep your fork to yourself.” Even looking at someone else’s plate longingly (as you think, I should’ve ordered that) is considered bad manners. While our food comes from the same pot or casserole dish, it is rarely shared once it reaches an individual’s plate.

I’ve been straying from this custom for several years now, ever since I was introduced to Ethiopian cuisine. Unlike the solitary plating of American meals, Ethiopians encourage eating from one large plate. After all, dining with others is about experiencing food together and sharing nourishment with the people you care about. In many cases, this sense of community might be about survival and minimizing waste, but culturally, it’s about bringing people together.

What began as a novelty grew into an addiction. I regularly sought out Ethiopian food wherever I lived or traveled. There is something about this fresh, carefully cooked food that reminds me of home; Mom simmering a pot of homemade soup and wiping the dominating scent of onions off the cutting board. It has the personal touch that is lacking in, say, a microwaved chicken dish from one of the chain restaurants.

We connect with the food through our hands first: the tearing of the soft teff-flour bread to scoop up a mouthful of steaming split yellow peas or boiled chickpeas. Then our taste buds meet flavors unique to each Ethiopian chef, who spends hours perfecting her own berbere concoction. This spice mix includes different proportions of ginger, chili peppers, korarima, rue, dried basil, and yes – lots and lots of garlic.

In the past two years, a big wish of mine came true. Three Ethiopian restaurants opened in Buffalo. Sadly, one has already closed, but not for lack of excellent food and warm hosts. At Mike’s on Bailey, one could always find a friendly smile from Geni or her son, who rightfully shared their platters with pride.

Near Buffalo State College, one can find Lucy Ethiopian, and Gatur’s is located on Allen. It’s difficult to compare them, as the flavors of the same dish vary greatly from one place to the next. This is because Ethiopia contains a wide variety of cultures, and though their cuisine shares the same name, it doesn’t always share the same recipes or traditions.

I earnestly hope these restaurants find success, and not just because I want to continue enjoying their food. Rather, I want people to recognize the art behind it.

Ethiopian food deserves no fear from newcomers. Rather, we should realize the value these places add to Buffalo. Here is a cuisine that can accommodate a large foodie demographic: vegans, vegetarians, the gluten-intolerant, spice lovers and meat eaters. While the seats aren’t always packed, every time I go in, I see some fellow gourmands tearing into their plate, their eyes telling the same story I’ve just told: “Yes, we’re hooked, too.”

At least they’re very willing to share.

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