Last night, we had our second new ethnic dinner of the year, but the first dinner that we ate with floppy bread as the utensils.
We had a Living Social coupon for the latest and greatest ethnic food to hit Pittsburgh, Abay Ethiopian Cuisine in East Liberty. It’s been open for several years now, and many of our friends have talked about its greatness, but we somehow never made our way over until we had this coupon (and the coupon was about to expire).
To be honest, I had no clue what to expect from Ethiopian food. It’s not something you hear about, and it’s not something that you’ve probably ever eaten homemade. Until I started looking at the menu yesterday before we went out, I didn’t even realize you don’t use a fork.
However, if you’re looking for something a little out-of-the-ordinary for dinner, Abay is the place. We’re sold on the Ethiopian cuisine bit. It’s yummy, and it’s probably not that bad for you.
On a recommendation from my friend Bryon, we started with an order of the pumpkin soup. That’s the smaller size, by the way, so be warned at how large the portions can be. The soup was so creamy and yummy, like the kind of thing you would want to eat as a kid coming in from playing in the snow all day (except that it probably doesn’t snow in Ethiopia). On the right are vegetable ‘sambussas,’ which are kind of like samosas in texture and flavor, but with the peas inside whole, instead of mushed into a paste.
We did get a spoon for the soup, but the sambussas were eaten by hand.
Since we didn’t really know what to expect from the food, we opted for a combination platter. If you’re a first-timer to Ethiopian food, I would recommend doing the same, so you can sample a bunch of unique dishes. You choose four different entrees, either all vegetarian or a combination of veggie and meat. We got a beef, a chicken, and two vegetarian dishes.
They tell you when you order how the food will be eaten, but it’s still a little strange sounding until you actually try it. Your food comes on a big, round plate (the same kind that you would make a pizza on if you owned a pizza shop), which is lined with ‘injera’ bread.
Basically, imagine that you went to a pizza shop and had a thin-crust pizza made. Instead of evenly distributing toppings, the crust was separated into four quadrants, and your toppings were piled in the center of each quadrant. And then, since the pizza dough was never cooked and made crispy, you had to just tear it off and use it to scoop up your toppings. That’s what eating Ethiopian-style is like.
Here is the plate we got. In the top section is Doro Minchet Abish, which is a spicy chicken in a traditional ‘berbere’ sauce. (These terms are all explained in detail on the menu, but ‘berbere’ is made of ginger, garlic, peppers, basil, and fenugreek.) Clockwise to the right is Kay Sir Dinich, which is stewed potatoes and beets with ginger, garlic, and onions. Below that is Gomen Besiga, cubes of beef in more garlic and onions (love that stuff) with kale. Finally, our second veggie dish was the Butecha, mashed chickpeas with green peppers, onions, and olive oil, served cold.
The big floppy roll you see on the left is the extra injera bread that you use to eat the food. You rip off pieces of it and pick up the food, like you’re making a little Ethiopian food taco with each bite.
This is my artsy closeup shot of the injera. I guess when I heard ‘use the bread instead of utensils,’ I thought we were talking about a drier bread, like a pita or tortilla shell. Injera is actually wet-feeling, and spongy and weird. It’s almost like touching brand-new Play-doh, or the soft, grippy-dot-things you use to open jars of pickles.
And that is why I giggled every time I took a piece of it to eat. I pretty much laughed through the whole dinner at the springy bread. It was not elastic enough to bounce back into place if you pulled it and let go, but it felt like it should have been. This was definitely the oddest bread I’ve ever eaten, although the flavor was pretty much like a pita or soft tortilla.
I don’t know how authentic this chocolate torte is to Ethiopian cuisine, but it was sure good anyway! The entrees were quite salty (thank goodness our waiter was on top of water refills), so after we were done eating, we were craving something sweet. This certainly did the trick.
The service was really great, and Abay is BYOB, so for a nice little $2.50 corking fee, you can enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner. We brought a standard cab, since we weren’t sure what to expect from the meal, and it went along quite well. The meat options are only beef or chicken, so a red is probably the best choice.
Plus (and I know this is just me being silly but) I really appreciate the fact that you get a large glass for your water, and that it comes with a straw. Far too often, restaurants with salty food give you these piddly little glasses of water, and you wind up so thirsty by the end of things (India Garden, I’m looking at you!). But Abay was well-prepared, and so I was quite happy.
Abay is located in the midst of Penn Circle (if you’re not from Pittsburgh, it’s one of our more interesting traffic locations, complete with a confusing roundabout of one-way streets), near the Shadow Lounge. Apparently, this is now the spot to be, as there are several other new restaurants on the same block that we really want to check out. Presently, there’s some sidewalk construction going on to accommodate the new influx of restaurants, but Abay was still packed with people, despite the orange cones surrounding the outside.
All in all, I think everyone should try Abay once, just for the experience. The flavor of the food was somewhat of a cross between Indian and Middle Eastern, lots of garlic and ginger and onions and peppers. We really liked it, but even more than the food, we liked the experience of going out and doing something new, even if it was just eating with a breadfork.
And also, if you eat Ethiopian style, just be warned that your dog is going to obsessively sniff your hands when you get home. I almost thought she was scoffing at us, like, “Oh, not eating with a fork? I’ve been doing that for ages, welcome to the 21st century.”