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A woman wearing a white embroidered dress is squatting on a stool, roasting a small pot of green coffee beans over a portable butane burner. She’s easy to ignore at Enjera Eritrean Restaurant and Bar in Crystal City. She’s low to the ground, sandwiched between the butt-end of the busy bar and a crowded banquette; her act is also competing with a pair of flat-screen TVs, one showing the Eagles–Vikings playoff game and the other broadcasting some Saturday Night Live special.
Well, let me clarify: She’d be easy to ignore if it weren’t for the tantalizing aromas emanating from her corner. As she shakes a long-handled pot over the blue flame, the beans start to smell like popcorn but assume a sweeter, almost chocolate-like aroma as the slow roasting process continues, minute by agonizing minute. When the beans reach their optimal color, the woman parades the smoking pot around the dining room for everyone to take a long, hard hit. You’ve never wanted a cup of coffee so badly in your life.
But unlike at Starbucks, where a barista’s speed is more important than the quality of his crema, waiting is an integral part of the coffee ceremony at Enjera. You’ll wait as the beans are roasted. You’ll wait as the roasted beans are ground. You’ll wait as the ground beans are boiled in an earthenware pot with a tall, smokestack-like neck. You’ll wait as the coffee boils to the top of the pot’s neck and is transferred to another container to briefly cool. You’ll wait as the coffee is poured back into the pot and boiled a second (and third) time. You will wait long after your infinitesimal amount of one-click patience has run dry.
Of course, if this service were taking place in, say, Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, you’d use this waiting period to pray, but since this is a Northern Virginia business, set along the godless South 23rd Street restaurant corridor, praying is out. Instead, the main form of communion occurs across tables, between friends and loved ones deep in conversations loud enough to be heard over the ambient music. I, in fact, seem to be the only one paying attention to the playoff; my dining companion is consumed with her new iPod. We’re frittering away time, American-style, impatient for our coffee.
When not following the game, I use the time to puzzle out the difference between Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisines. I’ve been frequenting Ethiopian establishments for years, but lately, I’ve been focused on those operations claiming to peddle Eritrean cuisine, places like Enjera, Dahlak in Adams Morgan, and Café Asmara in Shaw. The most obvious difference, I’ve found, is language: A dish of chicken stew, for example, may be known by the Amharic name doro wot at Ethiopian eateries, but it’s often called by its Tigrinya name, tsebhi dorho, at Eritrean restaurants.
What’s more, at places like Enjera, I discovered a few dishes I’d never seen before, such as these rolled-up slices of injera stuffed with buttery tilapia and served with molten awaze sauce or this hulking ring of barely cooked dough known as ga’at. The latter is essentially a savory porridge that Eritreans eat for breakfast with seasoned butter, berbere spices, and yogurt.
But given the bloody animosity that has existed for decades between border-mates Eritrea and Ethiopia, I found it hard to believe the countries’ fierce nationalism couldn’t be detected any better on the plate. I also had a hard time believing the rote responses from servers at Dahlak and Enjera, who claimed there wasn’t much difference between the cuisines. Their answers felt like brush-offs from employees too busy, or too ill-informed, to explain the subtleties that define Eritrean and Ethiopian cooking. So I called Daniel Mesifeni, owner of Dahlak on U Street NW.
Mesifeni told me the same thing: “I don’t see any differences between Ethiopian and Eritrean” cuisines. If you press him, though, Mesifeni will admit that he can instantly taste a dish’s origin. He says Eritrean food tends to be “lighter,” with less seasoned butter, and that Eritrean restaurants include more Italian options, such as spaghetti or lasagna, in what amounts to a hearty embrace of their former colonial rulers. The Italians, after all, gave Eritrea not only a name and a suspiciously Italy-shaped border, but they also gave Eritreans an easily grasped identity—and therefore, arguably, their first taste of nationalistic pride.
But that growing nationalism apparently wasn’t enough to brush aside centuries of common ethnic ancestry, which has led to a mostly shared cuisine and, further down the road, to the annoying American habit of lumping Eritreans and Ethiopians into one amorphous, East African blob. To untangle the subtle variations between cuisines, you must understand that the differences are more a matter of taste than a strict delineation of indigenous dishes.
Mesifeni’s weekend chef, Ruth Berhe, says Eritrean cooks use more tomatoes than their Ethiopian counterparts, particularly in their tsebhi dorho; the juicy fruit helps tamp down the berbere-induced heat that Ethiopians so love in their national chicken dish. Eritrean cooks, Berhe notes, sometimes use a heavier hand with cumin, curry powders, and other Middle Eastern spices, a nod to the Ottomans who once ruled the area.
Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion, but as I’m dabbing at the dark, tomato-laced sauce surrounding Enjera’s zigni derho, the restaurant’s version of doro wot, I’m blown away by the gravy’s subtlety and complexity. It’s like the Eritrean version of Oaxacan mole—rich, thick, spicy, tart, even a little sweet. You can’t credit the tomato alone for this masterwork; you must praise Enjera’s cooks, who blend spices to suit their customers’ tastes. This, in fact, is what separates the Eritreans from the Ethiopians.
It comes down to spice blends, says Hiyoba Sebhatu, a manager at Enjera. She says Eritreans tend to go a little easier on the spices, notably on awaze, the defining sauce of both cuisines. The same holds true for seasoned butter: The Eritrean version of seasoned butter, tegelese tesmi, has a lighter, more streamlined flavor than the Ethiopian invention, niter kebbeh, which is usually front-loaded with spices and perfumed with liberal amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg, and even basil. Order the ga’at and check it out for yourself. It’s one of the few dishes at Enjera that uses real Eritrean butter.
And what about the Eritrean coffee service? Does it differ from its more famous Ethiopian cousin? Let’s start with this: At Enjera, the Sunday night service, in a concession to religious tolerance and a diner’s palate, doesn’t begin with a cloud of incense smoke. It also substitutes an herby flatbread for the popcorn or peanuts that often serve as the salty counterpoint to the potent, sugary, espresso-like coffee sipped from handle-less cups. But these alternations don’t brand the service as Eritrean. The main difference is the earthenware vessel in which you boil the coffee. The Ethiopian coffee pot, called the jebena, merely sports an extra spout.
The differences, in other words, are virtually impossible to detect, unless you’re an Eritrean or Ethiopian with a national identity to defend.
Enjera Eritrean Restaurant and Bar, 549 S. 23rd St, Arlington. (703) 989-6418
Dahlak, 1771 U St. NW, (202) 332-2110.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.