Ethiopian Cuisine On Wheels
At Makina Cafe, Ethiopian Takeaway With Buoyant Injera
Injera is a certainty at every Ethiopian meal and the measure of every Ethiopian restaurant: floppy, featherweight flatbread as thin as a kerchief, with the sepia tinge of an old photograph. One side is smooth while the other has almost more holes than dough, from the bubbles that swell and pop as the batter settles on the mitad (griddle). In Amharic they are known as ain, or eyes, and the more of them, the better.
At the bright yellow Makina Cafe truck, which has been plying the streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens since last summer, the injera is buoyant in the hand and unapologetically sour, with an insistent, earthy tang and a thousand eyes. It’s made of fermented teff, cut with a little wheat to account for New York’s troublesome changes in climate (which can make the dough too sticky), and delivered fresh every morning to the truck before it sets out for lunch service.
The identity of its maker is a prized secret. Eden Gebre Egziabher, the truck’s owner and chef, said simply, “I have a lady. She’s the best.”
Twenty years ago, war broke out between Ethiopia, Ms. Gebre Egziabher’s home country, and neighboring Eritrea, where her parents were born. The Ethiopian government expelled residents of Eritrean descent, even those who were Ethiopian citizens, and refused to allow her mother, who had been visiting friends in the United States, to return.
“One minute everyone was living together,” Ms. Gebre Egziabher said. “The next, families were ripped apart.” While she fled with her father and older sister to Kenya, her mother applied for asylum in the United States. A year later, they were reunited in Charlotte, N.C.
Now, Ms. Gebre Egziabher hopes to turn the food of her childhood into an American staple — “to bring my culture to Main Street,” she said. Makina means truck in Amharic and Tigrinya, languages widely spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and has an echo of macchina, or automobile, from the Italian spoken by the countries’ colonizers.
For her menu, she intentionally chose dishes whose ingredients would not be intimidating to diners unfamiliar with the cuisine, she said, as in fossolia, a gingery simmer of string beans and carrots, and tikel gomen, cabbage gently broken down with carrots and potatoes — although not too much, so it keeps a memory of crunch.
Most of the vegetables are mild, at times overly so, like collard greens, dark and tender but leaking too much water. I preferred misir, whole red lentils cooked briefly so they don’t lose structure, humming with berbere, a spice blend whose sulky heat is tempered by warming cardamom and clove and the faintly scolding bitterness of fenugreek.
ADVERTISEMENTTibs, a celebratory dish made with nubs of chicken (dark meat only) or beef, is forthright in flavor, bearing swallowed smoke from the grill. Ms. Gebre Egziabher foregoes the traditional gloss of niter kibbeh, spiced clarified butter, for oil infused with the same spices, to make the food healthier but still rich.ImageTraditionally, no Ethiopian meal is complete without injera, a floppy, featherweight flatbread, unapologetically sour.CreditCaitlin Ochs for The New York TimesThree sauces are available: lemon and olive oil, a non-indigenous concoction without a trace of heat; awaze, fueled by berbere, albeit slightly toned down (“it’s usually much hotter”); and the house Makina sauce, based on Ms. Gebre Egziabher’s mother’s recipe, a jalapeño inferno that bestows divinity on all it touches.
At restaurants, injera is typically brought to the table sprawling to the edges of a gebeta, a round metal tray. Stews are spooned over it, and strips of injera are torn off to scoop them up. But a lunch truck can’t package food this way; how would it survive the jostling trip back to the office, without the separate dishes merging into one?
So Ms. Gebre Egziabher uses aluminum containers with three compartments, lining the largest one with a fold of injera and tucking an extra roll of it alongside. Where a restaurant might crowd a platter with ten dishes, the truck offers, for less than $10, a simple equation of meat and two veg — or no meat and three veg, if you prefer, in keeping with Orthodox Christian fasting traditions followed by close to half the population of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who abstain from meat for up to 250 days a year.
For diners wary of injera, Ms. Gebre Egziabher offers rice, although in her household it was virtually unknown. “I wanted to be authentic, but I had to face reality,” she said. “The majority of the world eats rice.
SOURCE : NY TIMES