My son is a dishwasher at an area restaurant. He complains about the volume of cutlery he is required to hand polish. He finds the chore tedious and baffling. I find it brilliant. The leaders of the future should have to do tedious and baffling chores for minimum wage.
As I was tearing off pieces of malty injera and scooping alicha wot the other day at the new-to-me Blue Nile restaurant, it did occur to me that cutlery polishing would be a snap here.
Ethiopian cuisine is served family-style, on one big sharing platter, with stews arranged on an edible base – the slate-grey, spongy, wonderfully tangy, giant crepe-like flatbread called injera. You will not find its like anywhere else. Uniquely Ethiopian, made from an iron-rich grain called t’ef, it replaces utensils. You tear off a piece from the edge, or from the extra rolls you are given, and you use it to scoop or pinch bites of the various curry-style purÃ©es, minces and stews arranged on its surface.
These are called wot. (Wot you ask? Heh heh.) A wot is a stew. Ethiopia’s national dish is called doro wot, a dark and menacing dish of bone-in meat – a thigh or drumstick – in a thick and fragrant spiced-up butter sauce, served with a hard cooked egg for company. (What you eat first, the chicken or the egg, is always up for debate.)
The cuisine’s fundamental condiments – berbere, mitmita and niter kibe – lend the unique flavour to the food at the Blue Nile, and though the menu here is much like the menu at every other Ethiopian restaurant in this city, these foundation pieces will vary, restaurant to restaurant, according to the cook’s own recipes.
There are vegetarian wots – yemisir wot (purÃ©ed, spicy red lentils) shuro wot (chick peas) atakilt wot (cabbage, carrots, potatoes) and there are meat wots – alicha and doro – beef and chicken. Ye-beg tibs is lamb, and rosemary flavours the Blue Nile’s rich stew of lamb, onion, tomato, and green pepper.
If you’re up for it, insist on kitffo. Ethiopia’s steak tartar, freshly minced, mixed with butter, herbs and mitmita. You may have to convince your server that you really do mean it, and she will take pains to inform you it is in fact raw meat you are ordering (and wouldn’t you prefer it cooked, or at least lightly cooked? – these are options.) We’ve also had kitffo lightly cooked with kale and ayib (Ethiopian cottage cheese.)
Beneath all these stews – the mild and the fiery, the yellow, the red, the green and the near-black – the injera ‘plate’ turns scarlet from the juices that have seeped out and soaked into its spongy holes. This may be the best part of the feast.
This is filling fare. Pace yourself with the injera. You might want to limit your starters and fortunately there is a limited number of them on offer. I’ve had both. Samosa-like pastries called sambussas – with or without meat – have a dry, papery thin pastry and a savoury, spicy filling.
For dessert, there is ice cream.
Not many Ethiopian restaurants in this city serve the traditional Ethiopian honey wine called tej. Its fragrant, bitter, dry tones work well with the food, I admit, but it remains for me, an acquired taste. I drank my husband’s beer instead.
The Blue Nile is a fairly generic looking restaurant. The tourism posters, a flag, wooden giraffes, some tusks, and a traditional costume hanging on a wall are the clues this is an Ethiopian restaurant. Other than these, and the lovely anise-like notes in the air, it is the food that takes you there.
577 Gladstone Ave., 613-321-0774
Access: Fully accessible, including washrooms
Price: Starters, $2; Main dishes, $7 to $13
Open: Monday, 4 pm to 10 pm; Tuesday to Sunday, 11 am to 10 pm