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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Blue Nile

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If you go at last to the Ethiopian restaurant nearby, remember this post, or google a bit before making an ethnocentric fool of yourself.

Most of us remember the 1980s when famines turned Ethiopia into one of the poorest countries and starvation was real for 8 million people. One million people died of it. Food is not something we associated with this country - more like the lack of it. But Ethiopia is now one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and there seems to be at least one Ethiopian restaurant in most good-sized U.S. cities.

At our Ann Arbor Blue Nile, our waitress was a white American, so at least when we goofed and asked for small individual plates and used a fork to scoop up the wat, it wasn't in front of an Ethiopian. Yikes. Oh wait, the owner saw because he brought us more bread, he's Ethiopian. Such humiliation.

In the shot below Don has figured out the technique of tearing off a piece of the stretchy injera bread to scoop up some stew with his fingers. But see, he still has a little plate. And there is that blasted fork. Duh. Individual plates were my idea actually. "Could we get some small plates please?" They had so neglected our needs.



But the thing is, if any person in the world would not make you feel stupid for ignoring the whole point of Ethiopian cuisine - a way to bond by sharing food from the same plate and eating with your fingers - it would be an Ethiopian. I have never met more gracious and genteel people in my life. My sister Nanny's best friend is Elsabeth, from Ethiopia. "Hello Rootie, how are you? How is Don? How is Lesley? How is Peter?" she asks after not seeing me for maybe ten years. I happened to be squeezed in next to her surrounded by thousands at the outdoor Obama rally when he came to campus during his campaign in the summer of 2008. Elsabeth's daughter Kalcadon looks a lot like the painting of a face in the restaurant, top photo.

The table in that same photo, with chairs intimately circled around? That's a mesob - authentically it would be made of straw too, like the conical cover, which you leave over the food until everyone's ready to plow a furrow in the wat with their rolled injera. I am the worst kind of blogger. I research after the experience.

The spices used for wat are similar to Southwestern chili spice and the mix is called berbere, with chile peppers, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries, and ajwain (in Amharic, it's netch azmud and it's a type of caraway seed. By the way, I discovered a spice information page of a German Professor Gernot Katzer, including history and different names of spices in various countries and languages. Brilliant!)

Is every Ethiopian restaurant in the U.S. named The Blue Nile? Almost, I think. I don't know if they are connected, I didn't find out. But it's a good name for an Ethiopian restaurant, of course, since of the Blue Nile's miles - 900, about 560 are inside Ethiopia. The Blue Nile meets the White Nile in Khartoum (Sudan), which means "the place where two rivers meet."

In the next two photos are appetizers, which I liked a bit better than the main course wats. I'm not proud of that, because I'm pretty sure the appetizers are Westernized creations for morons like me. These rolls made with the injera bread are an ingenious way to make me happy though, with fresh veggies inside. Using that stretchy bread for wraps is a good one - easier than sticky rice California rolls, says me.



And crostinis with humus and roasted peppers and onions. I think that's feta on top. Super delicious.



Of course now I find a youtube, How To Eat Ethiopian Food.

Melkam Megeb!



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50 comments:

Renee said...

I am so crazy for food right now, probably because I'm starving and can't get any down.

Looks delicious.

xoxox

Annie said...

Thanks for the introduction. I love ethnic food but haven't tried Ethiopian yet.

(The verification word was "toxic". Is that a sign??)

Anonymous said...

Ruth,
Have you been to Altu's?
Love, Love, Love your blog.
Cindy G

Shari Sunday said...

Very informative! Looks good. I once heard someone very famous say that she was nervous in a fancy restaurant in case she did something wrong. (I'm sure they were thrilled to have her in that restaurant!) Anyway, it made me like her even more and realize that anyone can be intimidated when trying something new. Good for you.

Loring Wirbel said...

It must have been about 1988 when we took our then-boss to an Ethiopian restaurant in San Francisco, and everyone loved it but Steve, who talked about it with disgust for years afterward. We realized at that point that, no matter how hip Steve appeared to be and how much he liked going out drinking with the riff-raff, he was too anal-retentive -- which, of course, meant he was destined for top management (became CEO of the company later). But if injera makes someone shudder, they have a problem with social mores.

And I salute you both, Ruth and Don, for going into an Ethiopian restaurant without knowing that utensils are verboten.

Ever been to Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington DC? Nothing but wall-to-wall Ethiopian restaurants. God forbid you should feel like Japanese food.

*jean* said...

ooo yum! i know we have one somewhere in mpls, will have to find it!! thanks for the tips!!

♥ Kathy said...

I would have goofed too but thanks to you, if I ever get to an Ethiopian restaurant I'll know what to do!

Ruth said...

Renee, I think I live to eat. No. I know I live to eat.

Ruth said...

Annie, do you have any by you in Helsinki? I didn't see any when I googled. My favorite ethnic food is Thai, with Turkish second. I haven't tried too many though.

Ruth said...

Cindy, no we haven't. I knew we had one here in E.L., and we'll have to check it out. Maybe with you and Bruce?

Thank you. I was just thinking about you yesterday. I hardly ever get on FB except to selfishly post my blog postings. :|

Oh dear, my CNN news alert just popped up to say 100s of thousands of Haitians have died in the quake. Ohhh.

Ginnie said...

Bill and I had an Ethiopian marriage counselor/therapist once during our 21 years together, Ruth, and I've just pictured him with his BIG SMILE, reading this over my shoulder. That video makes the food sure look yummy.

Shattered said...

What fun experience! We are going to have to find a local "Blue Nile" to take our daughter to. We have fun taking her to different ethnic restaurants; Greek is currently her favorite. :)

Snappy Di said...

The food looks delicious, but if that is how you eat it, then it must require that you eat a lot of bread/starch with each meal just to pick up your food. I think I would have to be rude and take my own fork with me... I can't do chopsticks, but the Orientals offer forks. Interesting post today.

Di
The Blue Ridge Gal

CottageGirl said...

You are so right ... I would NEVER associate Ethiopia with food ... lack of food, yes. Ethiopian restaurant ... NO!
I'm so glad I read your review. The restaurant really reflects the culture. I love those tables and the colorful images on the walls as well as finding out the proper way to eat that big platter of food!

WHO KNEW?!

lovely you said...

I LOVE Ethiopian food! My husband and I first tried it while living in DC and I was hooked from the first beautiful bite. And I'm sorry to say, Ruth, because although this is my first comment here, I've been following you for quite some time, and I just love you to death, but I think it's pretty lame that you asked for the plates and forks! Embrace the experience! I'll let it slide this time if you promise to do it right next time! ;)

Your blog is a blessing. Thank you!

RD said...

Ethiopian food is a favorite. We recently took our girls (9 & 14) to our local Ethiopian place (NOT the Blue Nile) and were delighted when they too absolutely loved it. I remember the first time I ate at one I asked for a fork, but was told they didn't have any. Haven't asked again, and we do just fine with our hands. Thanks for sharing your experience!

freefalling said...

Ooooo - those crostini look YUMMO!
When we eat out - I love entrees and appetizers.
That way I can fit in dessert!
If I go for a main, no matter how hard I try - I just can't squeeze it sweets.

Recently we went to a Turkish restaurant in Canberra and I had
"etli borek
crisp home made filo rolls filled with slow braised lamb, currants & pine-nuts, served with a pomegranate & yoghurt sauce"
I cannot tell you how fabulous it was!

Ruth said...

Shari, on one hand, we were glad there weren't many other customers to see us ask for those things (although we were quite privately in a booth, thank goodness). But on the other hand if there had been people at that table in the top photo, we could have surreptitiously watched their behavior.

Ruth said...

Loring, what a strange thing it is, now I think of it. We in the U.S. tend to experience other ethnic foods via restaurants or take-out. While that is nice exposure and real in the sense of experiencing new flavors and methods, it isn't like sitting down in someone's home. When Don and I helped "boat people" Hmongh refugees in LA learn English, we went to their tiny house where two families lived. In gratitude they served us feasts of Chinese-Vietnamese food that seemed to fill the whole place. Even there, we goofed. They offered rice, and we gladly took some on our plates, loving rice as we do. Later we learned that rice is only served as a courtesy, in case the guest has not been satisfied with enough food. It broke our hearts, but we hoped they understood our ignorance as isolated Americans.

I guess food is all about hospitality, and as long as you accept it with the intention of gratitude, you can't go very wrong.

Ruth said...

Yep, Jean, when I was searching around, the one in Minneapolis is the first one I found. Enjoy!

Ruth said...

♥ Kathy, I'm glad to be the guinea pig. :)

Susan said...

Oops! I should have warned you what to expect! It is a very communal eating style. Your Blue Nile is much fancier than the one I went to in Columbus. It was charming though, in a shabby kind of way. We were sitting a lot lower and the drinks were put on small tables to the side. Did yours do that? The iced tea was fabulous and I drank gallons of it.

Unlike you, I didn't do any research, either before or after. I did happen upon the injera in a cooking blog once, but I didn't bookmark it.

Sounds like you'll be making a return visit someday?

Ruth said...

Boots, there is one in Amsterdam called Abyssinia. :)

However, I know that you are cooking scrumptious meals at home for you and Astrid, so you may not need to ever go out.

Montag said...

I remember going to one in Lansing with my daughter after day 1 of the Michigan bar exam in February two years past...forget the name.

I've gone to Ethiopean restaurants in DC with people from other parts of Africa...only to find out that they believe that the Ethiopeans think they are better than many others in Africa...
Makes for some odd moments.

So it goes...

Ruth said...

Shattered, it's marvelous that you are giving her tastes of different cuisines young! I remember distinctly the first time I ate in a Chinese restaurant when I was around 11, with my mom in Bayonne, NJ. We didn't eat out much in those days, and there were not many options.

Ruth said...

Di, they did provide a fork and knife. I just don't think they expected us to use them.

Of course these days we get to do what we want in this melting pot of ours. I say if you try the food and eat it how you wish, that's good! Otherwise, maybe you wouldn't try it! I do like stepping out of my box though.

And I must say, French pastries must be eaten with fingers.

Vagabonde said...

I am pleased you enjoyed Ethiopian food, it is very tasty. At work we had Ethiopian trainees twice, for a few months. I went to an Ethiopian restaurant with them in Atlanta and they had a small plate full of the berbere spices and by the end of the meal, the plate was empty! I went to Addis Abeba twice, once for work and once for pleasure. They took me to a lady who had a restaurant in her home – the food was out of this world. When I went back to the hotel I tried the Ethiopian outfit I had bought that day and turned the TV on – guess what was playing? Out of Africa of all things. I was in heaven! I took a picture of myself with my film camera, but I cut my head off. I need to find it and scan it for a post someday.

C.M. Jackson said...

ruth---all I can say is yum! After the holidays I swore that my diet would consit of broth and water..reading this post makes that goal so very difficult...when I get tempted I am coming back to this post to look at the pictures!

great post!c

Ruth said...

CottageGirl, we have an Ethiopian restaurant right here in my college town too, but we've never been to that one. We went to Ann Arbor to shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, so we decided to try this out after so many friends told us it's their favorite restaurant in AA.

Ruth said...

lovely you, howdoyoudo, and welcome to synch! I didn't notice you there lurking, so thank you for making your presence known. We'll see if we go back. Now we'll likely go to the one closer by, not a Blue Nile, I think it's called Altu's. But that is more intimate and we probably won't be in a booth hiding like we were at the Blue Nile, so we will brandish our skills for all to see, as if we have been doing this all our lives.

Thank you for your nice comment. You have a very cool blog, and I really like your sense of humor (that's humour in American).

Ruth said...

RD, maybe if they hadn't given us forks at the outset, we would have gotten a clue, maybe not. They should take you through a little education station first on your way to a table or booth.

Ruth said...

Oh dear, Letty, I am drooling. I so miss Turkish food, and when I try to recreate it, it isn't bad, but you just can't get that lamb and other meats, and the filo, to taste the same or have the same textures.

I love appetizers too. Do you know how dumb we are here in the U.S.? We call main dishes "entrees." So most Americans think entree means something quite different than what it means: starting point. Duh.

Ruth said...

Susie, we might go back. But we'll probably first go to Altu's in East Lansing, which is probably more like the one you have in Columbus I'm guessing. We don't get to Ann Arbor often enough, so I'd rather check out other restaurants we haven't been to. Don liked the food more than I did, but as I said in the post, I loved the appetizers. I guess I could just eat those and let him eat the wat.

Ruth said...

Well, Montag, I find that very interesting. Aren't perceptions fascinating things!

I think the one in East Lansing is Altu's. I guess you needed to get down and dirty with fingers in the food after all that head stuff in the bar exam, eh?

Ruth said...

You are truly a Vagabonde, Vagabonde. I look forward to seeing that Ethiopian outfit some day soon. What you described made me feel the whole experience of another culture, much more fully than just going out to eat.

Ruth said...

Hi C.M., I did love the appetizers and could eat them right now.

I know, I'm working on shedding a couple of pounds myself. Easy on, not so easy off.

California Girl said...

the food looks freakin' great and i love eating with my fingers.

dutchbaby said...

The food looks delicious and I love the idea of eating with my fingers, just like in Indonesia, though the Indonesians don't have that handy dandy stretchy bread to blanket over the bites.

When I was a teen I met a Filipino couple who always ate from the same plate. I thought it was bizarre but now I see what an intimate ritual that must have been for them.

I was surprised at the decor and lighting of the restaurant. It looks more like an ethnic Starbucks than the ornate, dark, and moody ambiance I expected.

Nancy said...

I'm going to look for a restaurant next time in Portland. They have tons of ethnic restaurants. Reno? Not so much.

shoreacres said...

I'm bemused by the crostini - perhaps a little addition for us Westerners?

I first began eating Ethiopean in NYC in the 70s. I was back from Liberia and good West African food was hard to find. I can't remember the name of my favorite place, now. It was just below Morningside Heights, about 116th, I'd say. Tiny place.

The customs at table are very similar to those of some West and North African peoples. The last time I was in Monrovia I ate with a Muslim family who might have been Fulani... We dined squatting on the floor, dipping from one pot, although their breads didn't come close to the injera.

We do have a Blue Nile in Houston, a Queen of Sheba, an Addisaba and a whole group of smaller restaurants. Ethiopian's gotten much more popular, and with the ability to get good ingredients, the food's just great.

What a wonderful post! Now I'm not going to be able to sleep for wanting some of this!

Ruth said...

California Girl, good for you!

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, I know whwat you mean about the decor. It's pretty snappy, and I wonder how long it's been that way? I've been hearing about this restaurant for decades, and I wonder if they've refurbished it recently. I kind of wish they hadn't put in booths, which is what we sat in. But yeah, it really reflects the American restaurant-gets-a-new-face look more than what I think you expected, and me too.

Ruth said...

Nancy, I guess that doesn't surprise me, though I wouldn't have guessed that. But Portland. Yeah, I would expect a lot of diversity there.

Ruth said...

Yes, Linda, I mentioned in the post that I was pretty sure the appetizers - which I enjoyed more than the wat - were Westernized creations for morons like me. Since it was my first time eating that combination of flavors, it's possible it would grow on me. But I'm not sure I'd give it another chance. I love the idea, but I just didn't enjoy the food a lot. Don did though, so if we go back, he can eat the wat, and I can eat the appetizers. However, we will probably try the one nearby in East Lansing next.

You must be thrilled to have more African cuisine popping up since you came back from Liberia. I on the other hand have very few Turkish restaurants to turn to. There is a sort-of one in Ann Arbor - Zola's - which has some Turkish.

Peter said...

I (of course) so much liked the way you wrote about this! ... and now you can go back knowing how to eat it ! ... and so would I if I decided to try one in Paris. There should be four or five of them!

Oliag said...

I will have to see if there are any Ethiopian restaurants in RI..or Boston...it sounds delicious and fun!...When in college I often ate dinner at the home of some Kuwaiti friends...there we shared chicken and all the sides without utensils while sitting on the floor...there is a proper etiquette for using one's hands tho...

I have noticed that lately I ask for a fork in Chinese restaurants....getting lazy as I get older I think:)

Ruth said...

Peter, I think Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford were eating Ethiopian in "Sabrina" - but it was NYC, not Paris. I am sure you must be right though, that there are a few around Paris.

Ruth said...

Oliag, I have been using chopsticks less myself. What's up with that? I suppose using fingers would be the laziest. :)

Jeanie said...

Great post about a terrific restaurant -- and I LOVE the photos!

Ruth said...

Thanks, Jeanie, it sounds like you've been there then. It's about time Don and I finally went.