I admit that I was not the typical child raised on the standard American diet of hotdogs, burgers and fries…although those were occasionally included in the mix of foods I ate. At a very young age I experienced ethnic, even exotic foods that many adults have never tried. Both of my parents were excellent cooks and there was always a wide variety of different types of food available. Despite my varied ethnic heritage and diet, one instruction always remained constant however: don’t eat with your hands!
That all changed recently when my wife and I were driving home from the airport and happened upon a restaurant called A Taste of Ethiopia. My wife and I both eat a vegan diet, so it’s not always easy to find a restaurant that serves a good variety of vegan options. But we loved this restaurant! Not only was the food fantastic but we got to eat with our hands. More about that later. We enjoyed it so much that we went back the next day and after enjoying another fine meal, we visited with the owner, Woine Mariam, about her restaurant and life in Ethiopia. [Woine is pronounced Winnie, like Winnie the Pooh, in Woine’s words.]
Woine grew up in Ethiopia and learned to cook by watching her mother. “I watched her constantly, and each time I saw her cook something, I said to myself, “That’s how you do that.” Her mother was an excellent cook who made delicious meals for the family daily. As part of their faith, they practiced two vegetarian days per week. As a result, the skill of preparing tasty, well-spiced vegetables has been elevated to an art form. And, of interest to our readers, kids in Ethiopia grow up eating lots of vegetables and lots of spices. So different from many in this country!
Woine said that when babies are ready to be weaned they are fed a mixture of roasted chickpeas, roasted peas, turmeric, and other spices called Shiro Wat. The ingredients are roasted and ground into a powder and then cooked with water, onions, and garlic. Babies are also fed a well-seasoned mash of potatoes and carrots. “There are no canned baby foods, no Gerber, in my country. We make our own baby foods from vegetables. Kids enjoy what we enjoy: it’s not different. People think kids won’t like what we like, but if they grow up eating the food, they love it.”
That’s a key point for us in this part of the world. We need to realize that what kids are exposed to in their food life will be what they come to expect. If we think they’ll only like macaroni from a blue box or Mcnuggetted-chicken, and that’s all we expose them to, that’s all they’ll like. And in a world where the childhood obesity issue has reached staggering proportions, helping kids to love vegetables could be a big part of the solution.
Our experiences at Woine’s restaurant were delightful. Food is served on a large platter, family style, for all at the table to share. There was a variety of dishes on the sampler platter we enjoyed, featuring chickpeas, lentils, vegetables, greens, cabbage, and even vinegar-dressed salad. Underneath it all is the Ethiopian foundation, its staple food: Injera, a fermented flatbread made from Teff (a tiny Ethiopian grain), or a combination of Teff, wheat, and barley. That’s how Woine makes hers, and it’s delicious. It takes three days to ferment, rather like sourdough starter, and is baked on a clay surface without added oil. Woine uses injera starter from home, from her mother’s own kitchen, and has kept this batch going for the 10 years she’s been in business. It was my favorite part of the meal.
And here’s where the “eat with your hands” part of the experience comes in: there are no forks at the Ethiopian table. Instead, after washing their hands thoroughly, one tears off a section of injera and uses it to scoop or pinch up bits of the thick stews, vegetables, and salad a bite at a time. Woine says of forks, “Why would you want anything between you and your food?” Indeed, it comes naturally to all human beings to experience food by hand. “When people bring in their little ones, and they see the platters of food, and eat with their hands, and the children are all smiles, faces covered with different sauces by the end of their meal, that’s my best reward,” Woine concludes.
So even if your kids seem firmly entrenched in the “I don’t like vegetables” camp, perhaps the excitement and novelty of eating exotic food with their hands will be the doorway to broader horizons.
If you live in the Austin area, or plan to visit the Austin area, don’t forget to check out A Taste of Ethiopia at the following locations:
- 1100 Grand Avenue, Pflugerville, TX 78660 (pictured on the right)
- 3801 South Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78784
Or visit online at: http://www.tasteofethiopiaaustin.com/