Fingernails lacquered in a shade of bright coral flash in my peripheral vision. Across the room, a female diner tears off a swath of injera and uses it to scoop up a mouthful of beef tibs and spicy stewed lentils.
Injera is the base of Ethiopian cuisine and serves not only as sustenance but also as plate and utensil. The pancakelike bread is made from teff, a cereal grain that grows best at high altitude. It is cooked in a hot pan that causes the side in contact with heat to form spongy dimples. Those dimples help soak up savory sauces.
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When you get right down to it, there would be no Ethiopian cuisine without the slightly tangy injera. I’ve eaten in restaurants where the injera is so big it drapes like an edible tablecloth. At Elsa’s Ethiopian in downtown Overland Park, more modest silver platters are covered with injera, and additional bread is served on the side.
Or course, you always can ask for more.
The high-protein, high-fiber bread is customarily eaten with the right hand only, and if an Ethiopian host wishes to express gratitude or affection, he or she may decide to feed the first morsels of a meal to you, a practice known as gursha.
The first time I ate at an Ethiopian restaurant, in Boulder, Colo., I was the chosen one at our table. The cook scooped up a larger than normal portion of the food and waited for me to open my mouth like a hungry baby bird. When we made contact, the surrounding patrons broke out in applause.
Dramatic, yes. But talk about performance anxiety.
I have since had the opportunity to better understand Ethiopian traditions by attending an Ethiopian wedding and watching an Ethiopian cook prepare a typical feast for James Beard Award-winning chefs, and I have learned it’s not rude to refuse such gestures.
So what are the hallmarks of a well-prepared Ethiopian meal?
For starters, Ethiopian is largely devoted to rich, home-style stews. Onions, which flavor but disappear from sight, are an important base to nearly every sauce. Many people assume Ethiopian food is hot, confusing heat with a rich, earthy blend of spices. As with Indian cuisine, spice mixtures are common. The most common here is berbere, a spice blend of garlic, red pepper, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek and more that varies from cook to cook.
The best way for a first-time diner to explore a variety of tastes and textures typical of the cuisine is to order a sampler platter, available with meat or vegetables. On my first night, I tried the meat version ($13.49) — a base of injera with daubs of alicha wat (mild beef stew), kitfo (ground prime beef in spicy butter with a mild sauce of “mitmita” or powdered chili pepper and red pepper), doro wat (chicken leg stewed in berbere with a hard-cooked egg) with a choice of two vegetable sides and ayb, a dish our server referred to as Ethiopian cottage cheese.
The vegetarian combo platter ($12.99) includes kik alicha (yellow split peas), miser wat (red lentils), shiro wat (highly seasoned chickpeas), dinich wat (red potatoes simmered in berbere sauce), gomen (stewed collard greens), tikil gomen (cabbage, carrots, ginger, garlic and a light dressing, similar to a coleslaw) and salad. Gomen, tikil gomen, shiro wat, dinich wat and kik alicha are repeated in smaller portions as sides to mix and match with other entrees. My favorites: miser wat, shiro wat and tikil gomen.
One dish of note that does not appear on the platters worth trying is the tilapia tibs, pieces of tilapia marinated in rosemary and awaze, a spicy sauce containing berbere. The fish is pan-fried with hot pepper, tomato, onion and greens. All entrees come with injera and two sides.
The menu is shy on appetizers. For starters, try the vegetarian sambosa, layers of flaky dough enveloping a filling of tiny green lentils, onion, garlic and a bit of hot pepper. The only other offerings: the melodic sounding timatim fitfit, a tomato, onion and green pepper salad served with injera or the same salad served with dressing. And there is only one dessert: baklava.
I’m rooting for the tiny, family-owned restaurant. If you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone, Elsa’s offers fresh, exotic fare at fair prices, and depending on your appetite, you might even find the portions are large enough for leftovers.