The first time I tried Ethiopian food, I was visiting my friend, Mat, in Montreal. We'd met the previous summer on a train headed to Berlin, and since we were both backpacking solo around Europe and trying to get to Prague, which had just suffered a flood, we found ourselves staying in the same hostel waiting for the rain to end. Neither of us made it to the Czech Republic, but we did share many a street falafel and tofu curry. And it was exciting to have another new culinary experience with Mat on his home turf.
Montreal felt so international to me at the time, especially compared to Middlebury, Vermont, where I'd spent my summer in grad school, and Ethiopian food was one of the most unusual cuisines I'd tried. The communal experience of sitting with a group of new friends and sharing a table-sized piece of injera bread that the food is served on really hooked me. I was thrilled to get to eat with my hands, using the bread as a utensil to scoop up the fragrant, richly spiced lentils, chickpeas and veggies.
I can't think of another cuisine that's as much fun to eat with friends, and apparently devotees of Arada Ethiopian agree, since every time I'm there I see large parties bonding over the food.
Ethiopian restaurants always offer plenty of vegetarian options, and about a third of Arada's menu is dedicated to vegetarian specialties. To really experience the full spectrum of the cuisine, order the Vegetarian Combination ($15.95 per person). You'll get six different dishes served up on the injera, a spongy, slightly sour, bubble-flecked piece of flat bread made from teff flour. The green beans cooked with onion, garlic, ginger and spices is one of my favorite dishes, as is the Yemiser Wot, or split lentils cooked in spicy red pepper sauce. But the potatoes with carrots and cabbage are surprisingly flavorful, as are the steamed greens, and the seasoned chickpeas and yellow lentils offer a nice balance to the meal. It's fun to mix and match each bite -- taking a bit of potato and chickpeas in one, trying some steamed greens and lentils in the next.
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If you're one of those fussy people who doesn't like your dishes to touch, you might have issues with Ethiopian food -- because your food is definitely going to mingle, and you're also encouraged to eat the bread that has served as the meal's "plate." But I think the sauce-soaked injera is one of the best parts of the meal, and always save room so that I can make sure I eat every bit.