Culinary Curiosity – Elsa’s Ethiopian
Some restaurants require diving in with both feet – or hands, as it might be in this case. Eating Ethiopian food is an intensely interactive activity, a community experience, and really something everyone should try – at least once! My world-traveler husband was much better prepared than I for our journey to Ethiopia via Downtown Overland Park. Ethiopia is located on the horn of Africa, on the eastern side, landlocked and filled with history and cultural riches. The country boasts 84 native languages (although English is the most oft spoken foreign language); the majority of worshippers are Christian, although there are many people practicing Islam and Judaism; and the extended family is the focus of the social system and daily life. Most importantly, there are some very important dining etiquette staples. Food is to be eaten with the hands (preferably the right hand), and, in a custom called “gursa”, food can be offered from one person’s hands to another person’s mouth, and it is done out of respect. Hospitality is paramount during an Ethiopian meal, and offerings from hosts should not be declined. That could actually explain how we ended up with enough food to feed a small village during our visit!
Elsa’s Ethiopian Restaurant is tucked into the west end of Downtown Overland Park and is owned by the Mychaels family, Elsa and Haile and their grown children. We were surprised to learn that it has actually been in that location for 10 years, so we felt a bit late to the party. But, now that we’ve been indoctrinated, there are so many reasons to go back. Everything Elsa makes is, “handmade, fresh, contains no sugar, no preservatives, has never been frozen, and comes from recipes handed down through generations,” according to the Chef herself. We ordered our dinner based on their recommendations, and the longer we stayed, and the more we ate, the more they brought out!
The cuisine of Elsa and Ethiopia was absolutely delicious, and comprised of combinations of flavors and textures we had never seen or even thought of. In summary, we had a meat combination meal, a vegetarian combination meal, a soup, and then a bonus lamb dish, and so very many iterations of lentils and vegetables, we lost count. The absolute matriarch of every meal is the injera, a beige, pancake-like, flat-yet-airy sort of crepe of a bread. Does that sound confusing? It is! We were presented with plates (yes, plural) of rolled injera, that are to be taken and unrolled and torn and used to pick up any of the other staples, and put directly into one’s mouth. Fortunately, the injera was not filling, or I wouldn’t have made it from one dish to the next. This very unique “bread” is made from an indigenous Ethiopian grain, tef, and barley flour.
Now, let’s jump into the actual dishes. Part of our meat combo consisted of doro wot, a chicken drumstick stewed in berbere sauce (more about that in a moment), onions, and a hard boiled egg; and part of it consisted of alicha wot, cubed beef in the berbere sauce with rosemary, garlic, tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos (not spicy, though). The lamb tibs are also sauteed with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. The vegetarian combo had kik alicha – yellow split peas stewed with turmeric, garlic, and onions; and tiki gomen – chopped cabbage, sliced potatoes, and carrots with turmeric, garlic, and onions. We also tasted split red lentils, green lentils, collard greens, and a veggie soup with lentils, pasta, tomatoes, celery, and onions.
What is hard to explain is the consistency of the stewed sauce in which the very tender meats rest. It’s not a thin sauce, it’s not a rich sauce, it is a thick, tasty sauce made from the berbere powder, which is actually a combination of 16 spices. It is a lovely compliment to the sublime meats. Tender is not a strong enough word, but suffice it to say that one can use injera to pull chicken from the bone with no effort, while sopping up as much sauce as possible in the process.
Since we had spent much more time putting much more food than we anticipated into our mouths with our hands, Haile treated us to his tea – both hot and iced – which had a lovely taste of cinnamon, but not too much – the perfect beverage for the meal. We were told when we arrived that they were really only offering carry-out and not dine-in (elsasrestaurantop.com). But, as food kept arriving at our table, we settled in and became part of the family, while patrons came and went and picked up their favorite dishes, with Haile greeting every person with familiarity. One of their sons came to greet us, and the entire occasion was a beautiful, hospitable foray into Ethiopian dining that really felt as if we had been invited into their home.
Also featured in the April 3, 2021 issue of The Independent
Photo Credit: Bailey Pianalto Photography
By Anne Potter Russ
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