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It had taken me almost four years to get here, to this small, comfortable storefront surrounded by taquerías and art galleries, in just the right area for catching hungry adventurers looking for an interesting dinner on a Saturday night. Arada Restaurant has scratchy tablecloths and no silverware; serves strong, sweet, black coffee in tiny demitasse cups from a full bar; and has both a modern kitchen and a decor dominated by a large map of Ethiopia, which goes a long way toward explaining why Ethiopian cuisine is so difficult to get your head around. And why it had taken me so long to review an Ethiopian restaurant. I'd needed a guide to show me the way.
750 Santa Fe Drive
Denver, CO 80204
Region: Central Denver
Doro wat: $9.60
Doro alitcha: $9.50< br>Greens: $7.95
There are mountains and deserts in Ethiopia. Cities and towns and long swaths of space where there's nothing at all. None of the names on the map meant anything to me. Ethiopia shares borders (and therefore foods and traditions) with Kenya and Somalia and Sudan -- all countries about which I know even less than I do Ethiopia. Ringed by mountains, Ethiopia has been protected to a certain extent throughout its history from the wars and invasions that invariably leave their non-indigenous stamp on a country's food long after the invasion is over. And still, traders and travelers made their mark on Ethiopia, bringing in chiles and ginger and subcontinental spices and walking away with coffee, the country's most important export.
Arada turns out to be the name of the central neighborhood of Addis Ababa, where one of the great spice markets of Africa, the Arada Gebeya, is located. Arada's namesake restaurant opened in 1998 on a stretch of Colfax busy with African restaurants, cafes and markets that reflect Denver's large expat Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. It did a good trade there, if not ever great, with a nice base of customers -- neighbors and immigrants and taxi drivers and gastronauts all sitting down together over plates of exactly the kind of food that made no sense to me at all. But last year, with rents rising on Colfax, the owners decided to move out of the familiar neighborhood and onto Santa Fe, another ethnic enclave entirely.
Which is where I found Arada that Saturday night.
I wasn't entirely ignorant of Ethiopian cuisine. I knew about injera, the most recognizable facet of Ethiopian dining, a slightly sour, squishy, soft, white flat bread made from fermented teff and served with everything, acting as side dish and silverware and plate. In taste and texture, injera is kind of like a gigantic underdone sourdough pancake. I'd also had azifa -- lentils marinated in vegetable oil with garlic, lemons and onion -- and kikil kitfo, which was, as far as I knew, pretty much just sautéed ground beef with muted spices, eaten folded inside pinches of injera like a sort of improvised African burrito.
But now, sitting with our backs to that map of alien names and flavors and chatting with owner Haime Asfaw about Arada's short, tight and unpronounceable menu, it suddenly occurred to me that what little I'd had of the foods of Ethiopia hadn't really been Ethiopian at all.
"The kitfo?" Laura asked. "Is that cooked or served raw?"
"Oh, no," Haime replied, shaking her head. "It is cooked. Unless I know you or if you are Ethiopian, I cook it for you."
"Wait a minute," I interrupted. "Is it supposed to be served raw?"
Haime smiled. "Well, for Ethiopia, yes. And very spicy."
Laura shook her head, knowing what was coming next.
"Can I have it that way?" I asked. "Ethiopian style?"
Now Haime laughed. "No," she said. "Really?"
"Really," I insisted.
Haime looked at Laura, as most people tend to when they can't quite believe I'm serious. Laura just shrugged. "It's okay," she said. "He means it. He eats things like that all the time."
Then Haime looked back at me, and I nodded vigorously, excited. "Absolutely," I said. "Bring it on."
And she did, proudly, beaming as she walked out platters and bowls of food, explaining every dish as it arrived at the table. We had sambusa, a cross between a pâtissier's turnover, an Indian samosa and a Jamaican meat pie -- triangles of crisp, flaky pastry wrapped around a heavily spiced beef filling turned green with fresh herbs and chopped nuts and tasting like beef covered in an Argentine chimichurri. The sambusa were delicious, served so hot that we burned our fingers pulling them apart. We washed down the flavors with sweet Ethiopian espresso and gulps of iced black tea spiked with clove.
One of the confusing things about Ethiopian cuisine is that everything tastes vaguely of something else, of some flavor you remember tasting somewhere else, at some other time. The spices -- most notably the berbere, ubiquitous in Ethiopian kitchens, a custom-blended spice mixture like Indian masala or Chinese five-spice that includes a little of everything: coriander and cumin, ginger and cardamom, nutmeg, clove, tumeric and cinnamon -- are somewhat Indian, somewhat Caribbean, but with a rawer edge. The sides -- unbelievably good stewed greens, carrots and green beans dressed in vinegar, cold cooked cabbage salad and another salad of fresh tomatoes studded with chunks of diced jalapeño -- are a mishmash of memories of American soul food and Island cuisine and even the green-market peasant grub of Europe.
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