Last night* Adam and I took an cooking class called "A Feast from Ethiopia" at the Institute of Culinary Education. I felt a little bad leaving work on time, because of a massive indexing project that the Mikes and various staff attorneys worked through the night to finish, but we'd made the class reservation a few weeks ago and the project was last minute. We showed up at the building, finally found our way to the proper floor after taking a dead-end elevator the first time, and got to the "Red Kitchen." The large room had a long table set up against the back, with pitchers of water and platters of bread, cheese, nuts and grapes for snacking. At first it seemed odd to me to have snacks provided for a cooking class, but we devoured everything while waiting for our dishes to cook. There were three ranges on the opposite wall and three island tables in the middle of the room. The front wall was tiled in various reddish-orange hued tiles, which I assume gave the kitchen its name.
The instructor, Myra, had us go around the table with typical why-are-you-here chat, and then spent a while talking about the ingredients we'd be using (specifically some of the more unusual spices, red and brown lentils, and teff flour) and some of the dishes we'd be making. She had us smell the spices and taste some of the spices, including one that someone else informed us is a basic ingredient in Listerine. It tasty smoky to me, sort of like cumin, with a sort of cold aftertaste.
We then gathered around the middle table as she made the berbere (which she pronounced ber-ber-ee) and the spiced clarified butter (ghee, I think it's called?). The toasted and ground spices for the berbere paste smelled so fantastic, as did the melting butter. I've never clarified butter before, so it was good to see it bubble and recognize the condensing, browning milk solids on the bottom of the pan.
We'd be given a packet of recipes (six dishes total) to prepare for our dinner. We split up into three groups, with each group taking two dishes. One group took a chicken stew and a collard green dish. As we don't eat chicken and collard greens are my least favorite Ethiopian dish, I was glad that these two were grouped together. Another group made a spicy squash dish, which was very original and very good. The cubed squash maintained much of its textural integrity after preparation. I would have preferred it to be less spicy, but then that's often my taste (unfortunately - I realize I miss out on the full flavor of many ethnic cuisines as a result). Their second dish was a red lentil stew. I'd not realized that red lentils naturally cook down into a soft puree, though it's one of my favorites. We made more clarified butter (good practice, and great for dunked bread snacking). Our two main dishes were a brown lentil stew (does not cook down like the red lentils) and a vegetable stew (heavy on the cabbage - love that cabbage!).
The injera is obviously the most daunting part of the home Ethiopian meal, as many of students said in our intro conversation. We made two versions. One was essentially a teff crepe that got a small amount of sponginess from the additional of club soda to the batter. I wasn't a huge fan. We made a true sourdough with a sourdough starter Mya had prepared ahead of time. While this one ended up better (thicker and more sour), it wasn't spongy enough or nearly sour enough. Mya claimed that the use of baking soda instead of baking powder would increase the prevalence of the sour flavor. We were sent home with a sourdough starter, which is still growing in our fridge 2 months later.
All the dishes were pretty good, but the lack of really good injera was a big drawback. The vegetables themselves lacked something...I'm not sure what, maybe the use of more butter/oil in the preparation, more spicing, the intangible quality of restaurant experience? I'm not sure $90 was worth the experience overall, but I enjoyed the evening and look forward to attempting this cuisine at home. However, we're seriously considering trying to buy our injera from a restaurant and just make the vegetables ourselves.
*I began this post in January (when we took the class), but only got around to finishing it now.
So what are my favorite Ethiopian restaurants in the city? We've eaten at a bunch of places.
Obviously, I can only comment on good vegi food at these places. Massawa (on Amsterdam and ~119th) was still around as of last year (when I graduated from Columbia), and it's pretty good. It's especially nice that they deliver to the area, and made for a number of good late night snacks. Awash on 109th(?) and Amsterdam has a better vegetarian selection, but their dishes aren't as consistent. My favorite place in the city is Ghenet, on Mulberry around Prince or Spring (maybe between the two?). They have an extensive vegi selection and everything's delicious. However, the service has been pretty slow the couple of times I've gone. Take out is (generally) really fast, and I'd recommend that if you're in a hurry. Meskerem has two locations, but I've only gone to the one on MacDougal, just north of Houston. The other is in the West 40s, I believe. Not as many vegetarian dishes as at Ghenet, and the place is a little more of a hole in the wall, but service is better and the food is consistently good.