Abyssinia offers cultural odyssey at unhurried pace
(Editor’s note: The following review was written by the students of cuisine writer Terry Kirts’ creative nonfiction course at IUPUI.)
Though Indianapolis has an increasingly diverse culinary scene, restaurants like Abyssinia, which require customers to suspend typical American dining practices, are rare. Even many of the more unusual international eateries adapt their menus and mealtime customs to make Hoosiers feel at home. If hungry would-be patrons of Abyssinia aim for a quick in-and-out meal, a more Westernized location may be more appropriate. If cultural understanding and a leisurely communal meal sound like a fun departure, then head out to Indy’s only Ethiopian eatery.
Contrary to popular misperception, Ethiopia has the largest concentration of livestock in Africa, and its large trade industry deals mainly in agricultural goods: coffee, beans and sugar cane. A country with this much food trade is bound to have an interesting cuisine, and Ethiopian gastronomy is as diverse as any in Africa. Eating together, even sharing from the same plate, is a way to maintain family bonds, but dining outside of the home is relatively rare. The fanciest of meals would cost around 30 birr, roughly four American dollars.
But what does a typical Ethiopian dinner entail? Because Ethiopia is a highly religious country, pork does not appear on the menu at Abyssinia, and vegetarian selections are as common as meat-based dishes. Typical ingredients include chili peppers, ginger, lentils and assorted spices employed quite liberally. Meats are often slow cooked in spicy stews with berbere (hot pepper powder) and nitter kebbeh (spicy butter).
One might easily miss Abyssinia due to poor signage and lack of exterior lighting in the strip mall on West 38th Street where this unique eatery resides. The restaurant’s front windows feature painted images of traditional Ethiopian artifacts, a theme continued in the warmly-lit interior, where one will find an overall atmosphere of unhurried intimacy. Long white curtains sheath a narrow space and white embroidered cloths drape tables flanking each side of the room. Cubist paintings of African animals adorn the walls. Toward the front, two traditional wicker seating groups allow small parties to enjoy customary Ethiopian dining.
The night we stopped in, our waitress wore the colorful dress of her homeland and her soft-spoken, gracious attempts at familiarizing us with Ethiopian cuisine informed our meal. At times, she dragged a bit in getting to our large party’s many requests for tea or an extra menu, and she often seemed to need a few extra hands. As we finished, the cook made his appearance to help bus tables, smiling at our appreciation of the meal.
Waiting for the stragglers in our party to arrive, we ordered a mix of yemisir and yesiga sambusas ($2), fried pastries filled with lentils or ground beef. Spicy with a tender pastry crust, they’re a wonderful way to commence the Abyssinia experience and an excellent introduction to Ethiopian food, especially for the timid visitor. To sample a variety of Ethiopian foods, the Abyssinia combo ($10.95) features a combination of sega wett (beef) and yebeg alecha (lamb), both served in delicious sauces laced with curry; the lamb, tangy and fragrant, was our favorite. The minchet abish ($8.99), a finely ground beef with a mixture of piquant spices, allows for a spicier experience. For the vegetarian visitor, the green and red lentils are excellent alternatives, as well as the atkilt wett ($5.50), a combination of carrots and green beans marinated and simmered in a spicy sauce.
All main courses are served with enjera, a spongy sourdough flatbread. Note to diners: Use sparingly, as the intense flavor can dominate the entrée and fill you up before you know it. Small pieces of the bread grasped in our fingers were our only “utensils” for scooping up the meat and vegetables from the communal plate before us. A blanket of enjera covered the platter as well, topped with meat and vegetables situated in Technicolor piles. While the cleanliness of other people’s appendages may have been in question, it was more the stigma that comes with using our hands to eat lentils resembling creamed corn or pureed baked beans that had us floundering at first. But the air of trepidation soon lifted once numerous people were served. The novelty of finger food and the generally playful nature of the meal were more than enough to dispel any discomfort.
Before going to Abyssinia, we knew little about Ethiopian food — less about their culture. But our visit provided these aspiring food critics with a novel dining experience as well as a great introduction to Ethiopia itself. When you go to Abyssinia, bring along a small group of friends; the portion sizes accommodate two to six. Give fellow diners a heads up and remind them to be patient; you’ll be grateful for the time to have a real conversation over dinner for once. Fast food? Nope. But while we didn’t encounter any burgers here — no forks or spoons either — the exotic tastes of Ethiopia left us hungry for more.
5352 W. 38th St.
Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 A.m.-10 p.m.
Food : Three and a half stars
Atmosphere : Three and a half stars
Service : Three and a half stars