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The French have their quatre-epices, the Germans make elaborate mustard blends and sausage seasonings, the British put together pickling and pudding spice mixtures. In India, the crucial mix is masala; in China, five-spice powder; in Thailand, red curry paste; in Japan, shichimi togarashi. In this country, any true Southern pit master has his own barbecue blend, a crab boil isn't complete without the proper seasoning, and an assortment of gumbo spices really gets Cajun cookin'.
But no cuisine is as dependent on its spice mixture as Ethiopian. Without berbere, the dishes of this African country would be as tasteless as plain ground beef and as appealing as boiled cabbage. Berbere is the taste of Ethiopian food, since nearly every dish uses at least a pinch of it. But what's in that pinch changes from kitchen to kitchen. Like each family in Ethiopia, each Ethiopian restaurant here in Denver offers its own take on the combination of ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, red chile peppers, paprika, turmeric and black pepper. And although a few places use commercially prepared or imported versions, most mix their own.
Not surprisingly--especially considering the high price of spices--the quality and quantity of these mixtures varies greatly. Some Ethiopian eateries are stingy with the more exotic ingredients, such as fenugreek and cardamom, which are crucial to the depth of flavor the berbere imparts, while others are just stingy, period, and use as little of the spices in the cooking process as they can. And then there's Arada Restaurant, which is so unstinting with its spices that simply walking into the place and smelling the heady aroma gives you a contact high.
5501 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80220
Region: East Denver
When they opened Arada last September, owners Zewdu Desta and Haime Asfaw decided to devote one side of the space to a market--which means that after enjoying the food featuring their own berbere blend, you can buy it in bulk. Haime does the cooking and serves the meals; Zewdu tends the market and helps her between customers. Both are gracious hosts who take pride in their place--and they have reason to. Their menu is much more elaborate than the roster offered at most local Ethiopian eateries--and everything I've ordered off it has been excellent.
The food arrives on a platter covered with injera (also spelled ingera and enjera). That's the essential Ethiopian bread made from teff, a millet-type grain that's combined with water and left to ferment for three or four days, then poured out onto a huge griddle in a spiral shape and cooked until the fermented batter makes a pancake full of bubbles. In restaurants in Africa, injera is used to line the bottom of a basket table (there's one on display in Arada's dining room), which is then layered with more injera and covered with the food. Basket tables aren't the only traditional trapping missing from the Denver dining scene: In Ethiopia, we'd also be sitting on stools, having our hands washed in a ritual fashion and drinking beaker-like glasses of tej, the country's ancient honey wine.
But Arada has made a few improvements on the old customs. For example, our main courses arrived in bowls instead of on top of the injera, allowing us to portion out what we wanted to eat when we wanted to eat it. When all the food's piled onto the bread, it tends to disintegrate, which makes it hard to grab some injera--with your right hand, please, to be polite--to scoop up the last drops of sauce. And we didn't want to miss a drop.
The best, and most common, Ethiopian sauce is wot, which literally means "sauce"; it usually involves berbere cooked with meat until both ingredients collapse into each other. At Arada, wot came with the meat choices of doro, or chicken ($6.50), and siga, or strips of beef ($6). Both versions contained a fair amount of meat for the price--and a generous amount of berbere. Arada's take on the spice mix is aromatic, redolent of cardamom, ginger and shallots, an uncommon but welcome sophisticated touch. It's also light on the chile heat.
Compared to Thailand's idea of hot, Ethiopia's is very tame. When I ordered, Haime asked me how spicy I wanted the food. "Very hot," I replied. She peered at me. "Are you sure very hot?" she asked. I told her I wanted to be sweating, and she laughed. But when she brought the food, she told me, "I didn't want you to sweat too much, so I put more berbere on the side for you to add." After two mild bites, I dumped the rest of the spice mixture onto my kitfo ($6), and I still didn't break into a sweat.
Even without the fire, the kitfo was very good. Arada makes this chopped-beef dish the traditional way--which is raw--only on request, and so the version I received was a rare-cooked one in which the beef had been sauteed in another Ethiopian staple, spiced butter oil, or niter kebbeh. To make niter kebbeh, clarified butter is boiled with many of the ingredients in berbere: garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and turmeric. The turmeric is what gives many Ethiopian dishes, such as Arada's kitfo, a yellowish tinge and a musky undercurrent.