Hands on cuisine

Hands on cuisine

Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer

Massawa Restaurant has served Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine for over 25 years.
Massawa Restaurant has served Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine for over 25 years.

For over a quarter-century, Massawa Restaurant has been helping people dig in.

Massawa combines the culinary traditions of Ethiopia and Eritrea, in which silverware is not needed.

In some of the world’s most populous countries, including India and Bangladesh, the majority of the population eats without utensils – just your fingers and palms.

Massawa offers lunch specials that are all under $9, and include vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.

A popular meat dish in Ethiopia and Massawa is zegeni, a beef dish smothered in berbere sauce, a concoction made of spices whose names spill off the tongue in a torrent of vowels: ajwain, radhuni, nigella and fenugreek—all spices from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Other components that might seem more familiar include chili peppers, garlic, ginger and dried basil.

The berbere brings the heat of Eastern Africa to the tongue. Whatever dish you order with the lunch special, it will be accompanied by two sides of vegetables. These include simmered okra, cablo (a white cabbage dish), timtimo, (a red lentil dish), and mitcha, (a dish of potatoes collard greens, carrots and spices).

Enjoy one of the many lunch specials; here, the beef dish <i>zegeni</i> (bottom) is served with <i>mitcha</i> (top left) and <i>timtimo</i> (top right).
Enjoy one of the many lunch specials; here, the beef dish zegeni (bottom) is served with mitcha (top left) and timtimo (top right).

Your meal will come on a plate draped with several pieces of injera bread. Injera is a traditional yeast-risen flatbread made of teff, a grass that is native to East Africa.

But there will be no silverware.

Instead, you will rip off a palm-sized piece of the injera, and use it to grab chunks of your food and eat it like a soft taco.

After you’re done scooping up your meal, make sure to try to eat the injera your food was served on. The somewhat bitter taste of the flatbread will have been met by the flavors of the meal’s sauces, creating a fresh new gustatory spark.

Feel free to take any leftover injera home; you will enjoy using it as a wrap for an egg scramble or dipping it in soup. Do avoid microwaving it, as it can become soggy.

And finish your meal with a cup of Ethiopian-style coffee, which includes a hint of cinnamon. Coffee is thought by some to have originated in Ethiopia, so rest assured that the cup you enjoy at Massawa will be a very good brew.

Then, and only then, are you allowed to wash your hands.

Massawa Restaurant
1239 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10027

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