Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Day 51 - Eating Ethiopian Food

I have never tried Ethiopian food. Similar to my recent experience trying Afghan food for the first time, my inspiration for trying Ethiopian food emerged after several people recommended it when I was planning for my "I have never..." journey. While I was unaware of what Ethiopian cuisine entailed, I figured there must have been a reason several people insisted I give it a try. In turn, I made plans to visit a local Ethiopian restaurant, Buraka, at some point during my 30th year. The priority of this "I have never..." event remained low until I found out Buraka is on the same block as the Afghan restaurant, Kabul, which is slated for redevelopment in the near future. Acknowledging Madison's only authentic Ethiopian restaurant may close permanently should the building in which it resides be demolished, I knew I needed to act fast on trying Ethiopian food for the first time. As a result, I set aside time this evening to take Rachael out for meal and follow through on my plans to finally experience Ethiopian cuisine.

Rachael and I made our way down to State Street in Madison immediately after I arrived home from work this afternoon. Although the evening air was surprisingly cool, the two of us decided we would eat outside when we arrived at Buraka. After finding a parking space, Rachael and I walked past the familiar sights of State Street and chatted about the day as we made our way to the restaurant. After a few minutes of walking, we encountered the recently frequented Kabul and immediately noticed the sign for Buraka hanging in the window next door. With few people occupying the outdoor seating area before the building, Rachael and I entered through Buraka’s large wooden door and descended into the restaurant’s lower level dining area.

As we made our way to the bottom of the stairs I took note of the empty tables filling the restaurant’s interior and of the sole woman stacking glasses behind the bar on our right. “How can I help you?” the woman asked in an unfamiliar accent as she looked up from her task. I briefly explained we were looking to grab a seat outside and have a meal, which prompted the woman to hand me two menus and explain she would be up to help us shortly. With menus in hand, Rachael and I climbed back up the stairwell and found an empty table near the back of the outdoor seating area. Upon taking a seat at the small wooden table, I immediately began looking over the menu. With exotic names and ingredients jumping off the page, I knew my first experience with Ethiopian food would be much different than my typical dining experiences.

Seated, curbside
Shortly after we took our seats, the same woman from behind the bar exited the restaurant and approached our table. After setting two glasses of water on the table, she asked us the customary questions about drinks and appetizers. Still researching the menu, Rachael quickly decided to order some Ethiopian wine and a pastry appetizer called Samoosa. I followed suit, ordering an Ethiopian beer named Bedele, which prompted the server to leave the table and head back into the restaurant. Over the next few minutes Rachael and I made small talk as we waited for our first course to arrive. Relaxing in the summer air, we poured over the remaining parts of the menu trying to narrow down the choices to a final selection. With some uncertainty over what we would choose remaining, our server returned with our drinks and appetizer.

The woman set our drinks and food on the table before asking us if we were ready to order. Rachael asked a few questions about the menu before settling on Misirwot, a dish of lentils, split peas, and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce over a Ethiopian sourdough flatbread called injera. After jotting down Rachael’s order, the woman looked at me with her pen at the ready. Still undecided and I looked at the woman and asked, “What is the most authentic Ethiopian meal you offer?” Thinking for a moment, the woman replied, “Really… anything, but I recommend the Dorowot.” I took a brief moment to read the description of the entrée, which indicated it contained chicken and carrots in a berbere spiked red sauce over injera. Heeding the server’s advice, I agreed to try the entrée. After scribbling on the notepad the server stated she would put in the order before walking back into the restaurant. Now turning our attention to the Samboosa and drinks in front of us, Rachael and I dove into the first course of our meal.

The Samboosa hit the spot with a variety of mild spices accent by a creamy pink sauce of unknown ingredients. After taking my first bite of the pastry I poured my Bedele into a glass provided by the server. Excited to try my first African beer, I was disappointed when I noticed small dark particles floating in the beer. Checking over the glass, I concluded the particles must be in the bottle of beer, which disappointed me greatly. Undeterred by the undesirable experience with the beer, Rachael and I worked through the rest of our appetizer. After we finished, our server returned to deliver our starter salads. Upon her arrival, I explained the issue with the beer and asked her to take the bottle and glass away. After doing so, the server returned and offered another Ethiopian beer, St. George, as a replacement to the Bedele. I agreed, and was happy to see a clear, golden beer as I poured it into a glass.

St. George saves the day
Moments after delivering my replacement beer, the server returned with our meals. Having just finished our salads, Rachael and I quickly made room for the plates as the server approached. The server announced the names of our entrées as she set our plates down in the newly cleared spaces. With our food before us, the server smiled and walked away. I was immediately intrigued by the sight of my meal. The bright red mix of chicken and carrots was complemented by a light gray, rubbery bread resting over the surface of the entire plate. A roll of the same bread laid across the top of the plate, obviously intended for use in the eating the meal. Although the feeling and texture of the bread was unique, I didn’t hesitate to dive into the meal. Tearing off pieces of the bread roll, I covered the chicken, carrots, and sauce before plunging my fork into the mixture. My first bite of the meal provided a spicy mix of flavors accompanied by a semi-sweet flavor from the bread. It was different, but it was good. To me, the food fell somewhere in the middle of tomato soup and curry with a bread unlike any other I have ever encountered. I continued eating, becoming more aware of why so many people insisted I try Ethiopian food with each bite I took.

Over the next 15 minutes Rachael and I picked away at our meals, trading bites of our food periodically. As I worked through a little less than the first half of my meal I was struck by how filling the meal was as I ate. Although I was enjoying it very much, I knew I couldn’t continue eating the food in front of me. I had barely made a dent in my meal, but my stomach felt packed to the brim. Retracting from my plate, I set my fork on the table and let out a heavy sigh. Rachael laughed in response to my action before stating she too was full from the meal. Realizing we would have some delicious leftovers to take home, we chatted for a while until our server returned with boxes and our check. After paying for the meal, I gathered my leftovers from the table and rose from the table. I took a quick glance down a State Street fading in the evening sunlight as Rachael joined me and we walked back to our car.

After trying Ethiopian food for the first time, I must say this is something I think everyone should try. The unique aspects of the cuisine make it stand out among the other foods I have experienced, with the spices, presentation, and flavors coming together in something altogether different. While I cannot say Ethiopian food is among the very best I have ever tasted, it is high on my list of delicious meals. The spices and injera alone make it fit comfortably on that list. With the pending redevelopment, I don’t know if Buraka will be around for very long, but my first experience with Ethiopian foods makes me think I will definitely make it a routine stop in downtown Madison for as long as the restaurant remains open.

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