Up the Nile

Berbere and niter kebbeh at the Ethiopian places around S.U.


2722 E. Cherry, 322-1019 BLUE NILE

456 12th, 320-8501 KOKEB

926 12th, 322-0485 MESKEL

1223 E. Cherry, 860-1724 You've got your Mediterranean influences down pat: the couscous, the dried fruits and ground nuts, the grilled meats. But follow the Nile up to its source—landlocked Ethiopia—and you find a completely different cuisine and culture. Throw out that couscous and the charcoal grill; add stew pots and about five gajillion Scoville units. Think of cooks developing rudimentary techniques 2.5 million years ago—beekeeping, coffee brewing, and sourdough bread all started here. Think of the companionship of communal dining, of creamy chickpeas and tender chicken legs. Realize how hungry you are, and know that your hunger can be sated at a number of mysterious-yet-homey Ethiopian establishments that radiate around Seattle University like moths to a flame. It's hard to separate the mysterious from the homey at Assimba, Blue Nile, Kokeb, or Meskel. You'll be casually waved in and told to sit anywhere; while each place has tablecloths and mild attempts at wall decorations (either a coat of bright paint or a few unusual paintings), there's not much to look at except the faces of your companions. Food arrives promptly, with little (if any) explanation. Beverages are limited to coffee, tea, mango juice, and beer; Assimba features "Ethiopia's Only Stout" ($3), while the spicy cardamom tea ($1.50; served iced if you ask nicely) at Meskel is worth coming back for. When it's time for the bill (and boxes for copious leftovers), you'll have to ask. Chill out; if you plan on rushing off to a movie afterward, you'll only be frustrated. Berbere and niter kebbeh are the two essential flavorings in Ethiopian dishes; the first is a paste made from hot paprika, ginger, garlic, pepper, red onion, salt, fenugreek, and, according to one menu, "pine cones." The second is clarified butter, seasoned with more of the same and a dash of turmeric for true finger-and-shirt staining power. When used together, the heat from the dishes becomes inescapable—just as the first fire dies down, the butter finishes coating your mouth and leaves you crying for mercy. To avoid tearing, gasping pain, first-timers should err on the mild side of caution, no matter how much heat they think they can handle. Don't say you weren't warned. Providing cool relief as well as entertainment is injera, the spongy flat bread that serves as tablecloth, utensil, serving platter, palate soother, and little puppet companion. These squishy sourdough pancakes are made from the high-protein super grain teff, so teeny it takes 150 to equal the weight of a single grain of wheat. Small but mighty—the bread is hugely filling and has strong expansionist tendencies. Expect to feel more full an hour after eating than you do upon leaving the restaurant. One sheet of injera will be heaped with whatever dishes you ordered, with still more injera neatly folded on a plate. Tear off pieces to use as scoops, and concentrate on small bites if you want to leave with unstained fingers. Although it's always served cold, slight variations occur from recipe to recipe; Assimba's and Kokeb's are smoothly bland with airy holes, Meskel's is the most delicate, and Blue Nile's features a distinct and pleasant tang. There'll be plenty left at the end of the meal, at which point you'll discover another bonus to injera: Approximately a quarter sheet is plenty to make a doughy hand puppet. Lentil eyes are a nice touch. Spicy stews are known as "wat," and are made with legumes (shiro), chicken (doro), beef (key), or lamb (bizhera). Doro is considered the national dish, and a tasty dish it is—dark, deep flavors and waves of spiciness. Each place serves it up with several drumsticks, cooked until the meat nearly falls off the bone. A hard-boiled egg is included, and while there are rumors of nightmarish egg-bombs of peppery pain, all four that passed these lips were creamy and plain, if a little green-yolked from overboiling. Assimba's key ($7) had tiny chunks of tender beef, and was both less spicy and slightly sweeter than the doro—more cardamom, less paprika. Meskel's bizhera ($10) was tougher, and the strongly flavored lamb argued a bit with the sweet sauce. The legume dishes brought the most pleasure and evinced the biggest differences among restaurants. Winning several votes for the new national dish is Meskel's shiro; ground peas (chickpeas, perhaps?) cooked with massive amounts of niter kebbeh resulted in the same pleasurably catatonic state you get from eating a pile of mashed potatoes. Yellow split peas ($6) from Assimba had a tasty simplicity after the fire-breathing chicken. Red lentils claimed to be spicy at every restaurant but were noticeably so only at Blue Nile and Meskel. Assimba's veered to the undercooked side with accompanying unmelded flavors, while Kokeb's were pleasantly spiced and moderately firm. Which spot you'll ultimately prefer is a matter of individual taste. Meskel gets props for best vegetable platters and tea; Assimba was a well-balanced, friendly place. Blue Nile had great food and the sketchiest service; Kokeb handles large groups and their puppet shows with giggling aplomb. To each his own. info@seattleweekly.com

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