My first exposure to Ethiopian food came when I was a sophomore in high school and allowed to choose the restaurant for my birthday dinner. I can't recall whether I was honestly intrigued by Ethiopian cooking, or if I was just taking adolescent advantage of the rare opportunity to boss around my family, but I chose The Blue Nile.
It wasn't a hit. Halfway through the meal, my parents insisted that we ditch the lentils and spinach and yellow split-peas and decamp to nearby Zingerman's Deli for corned beef sandwiches. As a newly-minted 15-year old with a Midwestern palate, I didn't protest. Nothing about Ethiopian food felt familiar, but the injera seemed strangest of all.
Newcomers to Ethiopian cuisine are always struck by the omnipresence of injera, the spongy flatbread made from teff flour. "For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian dining, a big part of the draw is that you get to eat with your hands and then eat the tablecloth," marveled an early review of The Blue Nile.
And yet I'm suggesting that you add still more injera to your meal by ordering Chef Cafe's terrific yebeg tibs firfir, a mildly spiced stew of meat and injera, torn up like an unwanted fax. The neatly trimmed lamb is unabashedly gamey, and there probably ought to be more of it. But the star of the dish - the cuisine, the culture - is the injera, floppy and porous, its distinctive sourness not the least bit dimmed by the wet mix of onions and peppers. Maybe instead of running for a Reuben when The Blue Nile's introductory vegetable combo disappointed at that long ago birthday celebration, we should have asked if the kitchen made firfir.