Sunday, July 31, 2011

AVL to ATL to Ethiopia

When you think of Atlanta and food, what do you think of? Chicken and biscuits? Chicken and waffles? Pork and anything? While there is plenty of traditional southern fare to be had in the ATL, there are also loads of good options for the modern foodie. Even the vegetarian ones. On a recent quick trip to our former home, however, we ignored the farm-to-table, locavore places that we'd normally slobber over and dove deep into that slice of the Atlanta food scene you don't hear much about: world cuisine.

Driving down from the mountains, we set aside the reality that we'd only have a few meal opportunities before having to high-tail it back home and passed the time talking about all the places we'd like to go. We reminisced about going for Ethiopian or Peruvian food on Buford highway, having proper Chinese dim sum and high-end authentic Mexican cuisine in the ubiquitious strip-mall restaurants, enjoying the spectacular dosas of south Indian cuisine at Udipi in Decatur, and Turkish kayak pizzas right next door. Sure a little American food slipped in as I still regularly fantasize about the gingerbread waffles with lemon curd at Java Jive but mostly our thoughts stayed global.

My number one priority was getting a taste of authentic South African food--something I've only found in the U.S. in Georgia. Strangely, both Atlanta and Savannah have great South African restaurants. We had been to 10 Degrees South shortly after it opened in the mid-90s. We remembered the Buckhead bungalow with its warm tones, casual atmosphere, and spot-on renditions of staples like bobotie, sosatie,and  boerwors with mealie pap. 

When we arrived, we were shocked to find the house had been turned into an unrecognizable modern building (hideous from the outside, it looked like a dreary medical office building) with valet parking (complimentary). Buckhead seems to have rubbed off on the place as it seemed to have gone more upscale for the dining and much more nightclubby for the bar. Fortunately, the food was as good as ever. There's not much beyond the vegetable curry for the non-carnivores but I was in heaven. I shared a biltong carpaccio ceasar salad with our friend and host for the weekend and she kindly let me steal a bite of her Kingclip--a favorite South African fish. Best of all was the dish I crave the most: bobotie. This Cape Malay spiced meat dish is often described as having a custard as part of it but that gives the wrong impression. It is like nothing else and needs to be tried to be appreciated. No photo will do it justice. And I didn't take my camera anyway. Make friends with a South African and have them make it for you.

Of all the wonderful cuisines brought to us by immigrants, this was the only one that didn't have the cheap-and-cheerful aspect that we usually enjoy. Still worth every penny and the strange looks we got for arriving in a pickup truck and not wearing black in the 95-degree heat. 

To make up Jim's protein deficit, we lunched the next day at the new northside location of one of our favorite haunts from Little Five Points: the Olive Bistro. The owner, Steve, takes what seem like fairly ordinary
Mediterranean dishes and somehow makes them spectacularly good while keeping them at cheap bistro prices. We gorged ourselves on hummus, falafel, grape leaves (his are about the only ones I like other than my own), and baklava. And one other thing: Tuscan beans. This dish of white beans, olive oil, lemon, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and herbs is completely addictive. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since we left ATL 10 years ago. It is deceptively simple--deceptive because for the life of me I cannot recreate it. So. Damn. Good. 

For our second dinner, we tried to keep it simple since we were still full from lunch. Our plan was to picnic at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival before seeing The Tempest. After a brief stop at Dancing Goats so Jim could pick up some of his beloved Batdorf and Bronson coffee, we headed over to the DeKalb Farmers Market. Note to our Illinois friends: the "l" in DeKalb is silent. But the market is not. This international market has some of the best food and best people watching--or more to the point, listening--in Atlanta. Here is where you go when you need 50 lbs. of jasmine rice, a durian fruit, fresh squid, pomegranate molasses, dried porcini mushrooms, dried shrimp, fresh oyster mushrooms......and on and on. Bulk spices, fresh produce fit for nearly any cuisine, incredible fresh seafood, fascinating dry goods, and an excellent wine section. The place is always jammed with folks from so many different countries loading up on the things they need for their own versions of good home cooking.

We really went to load up at the hot bar (sesame tofu, three kinds of samosas--lamb, beef, and veggie, fried chicken, lentil salad) where dinner for three came to $12. But I couldn't help looking through the whole, huge store. We did, afterall, bring a cooler with us thinking we'd load up at Trader Joe's before heading home. Instead, we loaded up here. So many fun things but two items just blew us away: Tej and injera.

Big fans of Ethiopian food, we have long lamented the lack of it here in the mountains. We have made a few attempts to cook it ourselves but two things are especially tricky: the honey wine known as Tej which should accompany the meal and the spongy, fermented bread injera on which and by which the meal is eaten. I have made injera twice. The first time fairly successfully with a non-traditional recipe out of a Moosewood cookbook. It takes three days but it's worth it since there is no good substitute. I tried making it the authentic way with Teff flour and it was a disaster. Inedible. I probably just needed a different recipe since I was using a different flour but I was gunshy after that experience and gave up. Since we had only ever found these two things at restaurants (and often the Tej only if we asked for it--most restaurants seem to have a secret stash), we resigned ourself to eating this most wonderful cuisine only when we were in cities with Ethiopian restaurants. 

Imagine our shock when perusing the wine aisle and spying a bottle of Tej in with the German white wines. We snagged it immediately and hoped that the reasonable price tag (c. $10) wasn't a harbinger of bad things to come.

I grabbed a South African pinotage for good measure, then headed out through the produce area. Mere moments after drooling over the fresh oyster mushrooms and looking to see who was brave enough to put a durian in their cart, I found myself in the bread aisle. Really, I was just cutting through to get to the hot bar but then I saw it. No way! Injera. Fresh-made injera for sale. Injera is so delicate and not at all shelf-stable so this was a huge surprise and a huge score. We grabbed up two packages of the giant round breads (easily 16 inches across) with the idea that we'd freeze them for future use. 

When we got to the checkout, the lovely east African cashiers looked at our Tej with amazement. They, too, couldn't believe the farmers market sold Tej. They passed it around and made us tell them exactly where it was. I think the market was going to have a lot of internal sales that night. Then they noticed me cradling our injera like a newborn in my arms. More amazement as they inquired about my plans for the bread. While one cashier asked me what I cooked (I replied "zil zil tibs" which got a great reaction) another was grilling Jim as to whether I was a good cook. I think we scored big points. 

Sadly, the bread did not survive the trip home intact. No matter. It still was as tasty as ever; it just wasn't photo-ready. They are a wonder to behold when they are properly cared for. Instead, we just made a whole bunch of dishes to cover our shame. First, I had to make the basic elements of nearly every Ethiopian dish: berbere (a hot spice mix) and niter kebbeh (spiced clarified butter). In the process of clarifying butter, you separate out the solids. I love that one of my recipes called both for the niter kibbeh but then also wanted me to add back the solids:

Once you have these basic ingredients, the recipes all go ridiculously fast. The vegetarian dined on Gomen (a mix of two kinds of kale, swiss chard, and carrots) and Yemisir Wat (a.k.a., Mesir Wet), a lentil dish often made with red lentils but we went with the more substantial brown lentils. A healthy dollop of Greek yogurt helped to offset the heat of the berbere.

The omnivore enjoyed all of those things plus Zil Zil Tibs made with sirloin steak and Doro Wat, the chicken stew which  features two kinds of chicken: meat and hard-boiled eggs. Try picking up a whole hard-boiled egg with injera and eating it gracefully the next time you're in an Ethiopian restaurant. Much hilarity will ensue. 

The spice level can easily be turned down when you make your own berebere mix. Since a well-made berbere is much like great Indian spice mixes where the heat doesn't drown out the myriad complex flavors, we prefer to keep the heat and use the yogurt to provide some variety. That, and the sour notes from the injera, set up some amazing taste sensations. But suit yourself. I'd rather you eat Ethiopian mildly spiced than not eat it at all. 

One last note: although Tej is called honey wine, it is not the same thing as what is called mead or honey wine in the U.S.. Try to get the real deal if you can. It is sweet, but not as cloying and viscous as many domestic honey wines. We normally don't care for honey wine but we make an exception for Tej and for meads from our friends at Fox Hill Meadery who make wonderfully balanced, dry, and complex meads--definitely not the stuff of dorm rooms and renaissance fairs.

Phew! All this writing has made me hungry. Fortunately, I have leftovers for days.......


  1. An earlier version of this post contained (shock and horror) a misspelling of the Ethiopian spice berbere. Please forgive me.

  2. I am so jealous! I used to cook Ethiopian food fairly regularly, but haven't done so in years. I had a good recipe for injera... I'll see if I can find it for you. I always made Arne cook the injera since it's the kind of task I lack patience for.

    Washington DC and Berkeley both have good Ethiopian restaurants. There's a coffee shop in ABQ that we recently learned hosts an Ethiopian restaurant one night a week, but we haven't been there yet. Maybe soon - I feel inspired. :)

    By the way, thanks for linking to Unfussy Epicure! I've gotten over 300 hits from your site!