I lost my virginity. Again.
This time, I popped my Ethiopian food cherry. And this time, I wasn't careful, so I'm with child. An injera bread baby, that is--that's growing in my belly as we speak because I ate too damn much!!!
I walked into Messob Ethiopian Restaurant on Fairfax's stretch of Little Ethiopia pure and untouched, half knowing what to expect from talking with friends who have had Ethiopian food before and also from the delicious review of a fellow food blogger, and half not, 'cause, well, just because. It was a little like being a kid in a candy store; I couldn't stop staring at all the interesting fixtures: huge red and green wicker basket looking things that ran down the center of the restaurant which I later found out were low, glass topped tables and not snake baskets, carved low back chairs with printed cushions, large patio-sized umbrellas that also graced the middle of the dining room. In the front of the restaurant, a windowed alcove that contained all of these fixtures, perfect for intimate group gatherings. The three of us, however, chose to sit at a "regular" table along the wall...probably easier for eating my first Ethiopian meal!
Messob's lovely dining room...I couldn't help but stare!
To make things easier, we ordered the Super Messob Exclusive for two, a combination platter that includes some of the restaurant's most popular dishes. And because we were starving, we ordered a few sambossas, triangular fried dumplings that are a little reminiscent in both name and form to Indian samosas. These, however, had a thinner, flakier "skin" than Indian samosas and were filled with spiced lentils. They were quite good, though extremely piping hot, burning my mouth a few times.
A piping hot sambossa
To drink, plain ice water (boring!) and...a chemistry beaker looking carafe of Messob's homemade Ethiopian honey wine (less boring!). It was all aglow with the light yellow color of honey, and it tasted almost like a very sweet hard cider. I detected a slight carbonation, but I could be wrong. A little too syrupy sweet to drink alone, but as an accompaniment to the boldly flavored foods we ate, it was just fine.
Chemistry was never my strong suit, but this wasn't bad!
Ahh, the long awaited moment...our Super Messob Exclusive platter finally arrived. It was a beautiful presentation of colors and textures atop a huge round of injera bread and I just couldn't wait to dig in. Instinctually, I wanted to grab my fork and start tearing into this, but I was reminded that Ethiopians traditionally eat with their hands. Their menu, in fact, goes into detail about Gursha, the technique of hand feeding your dinner companion(s) by placing chunks of food into their mouth. Gursha, it says, plays up the exotic component of eating and is exchanged between husband and wife as well as friends and relatives. OK, I know we were all good friends and all, but uh, no thanks. I think we had quite a pleasant Ethiopian dining experience sans Gursha! My friend instructed me and my other friend, also an Ethiopian food virgin, to tear off a piece of the injera from the basket, and proceed to pick up whatever my little heart desired from that fabulous platter of food. The injera, a spongy, sour flatbread whose purpose is both food and utensil, felt a little like a chamois to me and reminded me that I have to get a car wash soon. "What makes it so spongy?" my friend asked. "They make it with 7-up," I answered. "Really?" she replied. At least I was able to fool her for a second. Seriously, injera is made with teff, a practically gluten-free round grain that flourishes in the Ethiopian highlands and whose properties are slightly yeast-like, therefore resulting in a bubbly texture after a brief period of fermentation. I'm still really glad that I remembered that I need a car wash, though.
Say "No" To...how CAN you say no to this???
I need to wash my car
I really need to wash my car
I dug into the siga wot first, a stew of beef braised in red pepper sauce. The chunks of beef were tender and hearty; I tasted a faint hint of star anise, so it tasted almost like a Chinese dish ngao lam--braised beef and tendons--that I'm more familiar with, and was therefore, really comforting. There were two stewed chicken drumsticks--doro wot--on our platter. Its meat was a little hard to tear off the bone with injera (we were novices, after all) but after that, it was all good: a little salty, a little sweet, and nicely spiced with ginger, cardamom, and paprika.
I'm not a big fan of lamb unless it's really fresh and either grilled or roasted, so needless to say, I could have done without the yebeg siga alitcha which was a curry-like lamb stew. The meat was tender, but tasted a tad too much on the gamey side. Funny enough, this also reminded me of the lamb curry stew that my Dad sometimes made when we were younger. All it needed was some scallions and potatoes. I never liked the Chinese version for the same gamey reason.
I did, however, quite like the kittfo, which was basically spiced ground beef, and the zelzel tibs, beef sauteed with onions and chiles. The tibs were maybe a tad on the dry side, but like carne asada for tacos, were chopped into small chunks and were so tasty that they were more than manageable.
Meats, meats and more meats
As much as I loved our meat dishes, I think I loved our vegetable dishes even more. Collard greens seemed to be prepared the same as how I'm used to 'em--Southern style--and were also perfectly sweet, salty and bitter, with maybe a slight hint of ginger that made this delicious dish a little more unique than its Southern counterpart. Nothing could beat the simplicity and cleanness of yatakilt alitcha: steamed cabbage, carrots and potato spiced with garlic and ginger. Strips of injera bread cooked with tomato sauce, tomato fit fit, were strangely good and perhaps should have been picked up with just my fingers to avoid such a carb overload. The yater alitcha, a greenish yellow dish of steamed peas and onions seasoned with garlic and ginger, as well as the yemisir wot, split lentils in red pepper sauce, were velvety smooth and both had bold, spicy flavors. A party in my mouth of different spices: tumeric, cardamom, nutmeg, paprika, cumin, cloves...the list goes on. A simple salad of lettuce and tomatoes tossed in a vinaigrette also helped to cleanse the palate.
Tomato fit fit and collard greens
Yater alitcha and yemisir wot...tasty!
By this time, I realized that that injera bread baby was starting to expand in my belly, as I hadn't kept track of all the injera that I'd tore off and nibbled over the last hour of eating. We still had a little food left on that huge platter of ours, and our waitress, knowing that we were all somewhat new to this, came by and told us that we must eat the layer of injera bread under all that food we just devoured because "it's the best part!" Yeah, of course it's the best part, having soaked up all of that saucy, spicy goodness. We made a few attempts, picking up pieces of this sauce laden sponge with the injera from the basket, but realized that if we kept doing this bread- with-bread-thing, it would for sure be a premature birth as our stomachs would just burst open. Then we tried picking up pieces of the yummy injera base with our bare hands and realized we were making too much of a mess. We would have given up and asked for forks at that point had we not been ready to go into labor right then and there.
And if that wasn't enough, our meal included a couple of baklava, which blew away a previous cavity hurting experience with baklava. But because we were so full, we took a few obligatory bites and left the rest.
Were they trying to induce labor???
A really wonderful, delicious meal, although I've learned my lesson: Practice safe eating--only order the Supper Messob Exclusive for ONE next time.
Messob Ethiopian Restaurant
1041 S. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90019