Lalibela... where to start? I'll start by saying that I didn't know what to expect. Ethiopian cuisine is still really new to me and this has truly been a rich cultural experience. All of the names on the menu looked foreign to me and we relied on the descriptions. Finally Py made the decision to order the Fasolia ($8), a vegetarian gumbo of carrots, string beans and potatoes. When the dish arrived with a large round pancake, all of us stared at it not knowing how we should go about eating it. We were given cutlery, but were encouraged to eat with our hands. The owner told us the traditional way of eating is to dump the vegetables onto the centre of the pancake, then use pieces of the pancake to scoop up the vegetables. The pancake is an Ethiopian bread called injera and is supposedly very healthy because it's made with an iron-rich grain called teff, barley and water with no yeast. It's also steamed instead of baked. We followed the instructions and put all the vegetables on the injera. I tasted a small piece of injera by itself and was surprised to find that it was quite sour from natural fermentation. The taste was peculiar and took some getting used to, but the injera coupled with the mildly spiced vegetables was a completely different story. The sour bread and the spiced veggies were made for each other!

We were also very excited about the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony ($20). Near the beginning of the meal, a handful of green coffee beans sizzling in a hot metal pan was brought to our table and we had the chance to take a whiff of the aroma of roasted coffee beans. After we had finished our vegetarian dish and injera, a wooden box was brought out onto the floor with a clay coffee pot and 4 little cups for each of us. The setup reminded me of a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. In front of the wooden box was burning incense with an interesting smoky scent.

The coffee was unlike any I've tasted before. We were given sugar but were told that the drink is typically taken without condiments. And so we did it the traditional way: black with no additives. Oddly enough it tasted more like extra dark tea than coffee. There was no bitterness to it despite the intense flavour. As we sat and sipped our coffee, the owner gave us a short history lesson on Ethiopia. For example, we didn't know that the coffee plant had originated in Ethiopia. Cultural trivia like this is always interesting.

Our meal at Lalibela was an adventure for us, a glimpse into the traditions of another culture. That combined with the low prices and tasty food makes this a great place to visit with friends for an African-style communal meal eaten with hands.

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