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Stranger in a Strange Land

I'd never understood Ethiopian food -- and then Haime Asfaw showed me the way.

Beef and chicken and lamb are all used, but no goat, no pork. Because of the particularly abstentious brand of Christianity practiced in the north of Ethiopia (with roughly 200 fasting days a year when no beef, chicken, eggs or dairy products may be consumed) and the Muslims in the south, vegetarian dishes are plentiful, with meatless variations available on almost any dish. There are rough cheeses that taste like paneer but have the curded texture of cottage cheese; they balance out the heat and spice of certain dishes as yogurt would if you were to eat your way east off that map on the wall. And though at first it seems as if you're chasing the flavors of a dozen different culinary traditions across the plate, what you're really doing is eating your way in toward just one. Ethiopian cuisine is a mother cuisine the way béchamel is a mother sauce: one from which infinite variation can be drawn, with a history of emigration rather than immigration, dispersion rather than assimilation. While Ethiopian cuisine remained almost untouched by foreign influence for generations, its flavors were brought to the Caribbean along the course of the slave trade. That hit of chimichurri memory is really a recollection of flavors that have existed for hundreds of years in Africa, then were brought to South America by an African diaspora in the same way that American soul food is a distant recollection of African traditions, a combination of flavors that were once native to a single place.

When the kitfo arrived, it was accompanied by its own theatrics of presentation. A large platter had been draped in injera, with pleated curtains of it hanging over the sides, and the borders of the tray were spotted with colorful cold salads and greens all made for mixing and dipping. With a large spoon, Haime scooped the beef -- raw like a tartare, cool to the touch and beautifully pink, shot with fierce veins of red -- from a small bowl onto the platter, added a scoop of cottage cheese, and shaped everything into a smooth mound. From another bowl, she then added doro alitcha -- rough chunks of chicken on the bone, stewed in a green sauce of vegetables and a million spices.

"Eat," she said, after explaining each component. She seemed reluctant to leave the table, lingering until I tore a piece of the spongy injera from the platter and picked up a large pinch of raw beef.

Haime Asfaw delivers the true taste of Ethiopia at 
Arada.
Mark Manger
Haime Asfaw delivers the true taste of Ethiopia at Arada.

Location Info

Map

Arada Ethiopian Restaurant

750 Santa Fe Drive
Denver, CO 80204

Category: Restaurant > African

Region: Central Denver

Details

750 Santa Fe Drive, 303-329-3344, www.aradarestaurant.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Tuesday- Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday

Sambusa: $4.95
Azifa: $7.95
Doro wat: $9.60
Doro alitcha: $9.50< br>Greens: $7.95
Kitfo: $9.95

It was delicious, a pure kick of blood and protein topped with spiced Ethiopian butter and laced with the wicked heat of a smoky-hot chile that made it almost like a beef ceviche, the meat affected by the acidity of the chiles, the fire of the chiles both carried and muted by the fat in the beef, and the cottage cheese hanging over everything as a cooling, almost civilizing influence. I don't know if this was a good version of kitfo or a bad one, or how it might have stacked up against plates of kitfo made elsewhere in Denver or in Ethiopia, because it was a truly new taste for me. I'd never had anything like it before, nothing even close. But I know that I loved it, that it was one of those flavors that hits you in the back of the head like a lightning bolt of comprehension -- you suddenly get it and understand that this plate, this dish in particular, is one of those very rare opportunities to taste the backbone of a cuisine. Like eating your first raw oyster, your first perfect San Marzano sauce, your first piece of sashimi, to eat kitfo for the first time is to taste the history of food in one of its purest forms. I was almost through a half-pound of bloody, raw, chile-shot beef with peasant cheese before I even started to slow down.

Haime returned to our table again and again, checking on us, making sure that everything was to our liking. She told me that if I was getting full, I didn't need to eat the meat with injera, that the kitfo could just be picked up with the fingers. She told us how the greens were made (with garlic and salt and cardamom and long, slow cooking) and how the clove in the iced tea numbed the tongue just slightly against the worst assault of the spiciest dishes. She explained berbere, weighed the virtues of the doro alitcha against the more traditional doro wat (literally translated, that dish is "chicken in sauce," which just means chicken and red-pepper sauce cooked down until one melts into the other). After so many years, I finally had my native guide, swollen with happiness at the opportunity to explain her food, and thereby her culture, to someone so obviously starving for it.

And through it all, I never stopped eating. Your first time at anything only comes around once, and I wanted to make the most of it. So I ate until I could barely move: tearing at the injera, getting beef blood under my fingernails and wat on my shirt. When every dish was empty, Haime brought us ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce and two spoons. After a journey of four years just to get to the beginning of one real dinner, and then the experience of that dinner, the ice cream was like a postcard from home -- a taste of the familiar among flavors of the far away.

I ate it with relish, already planning in my head when I could return to Arada for more.

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