This is Fooducated’s very first guest post and it’s written by Brendan Ziebarth, architecture student by day, food lover by always.
Being friends with Fooducated’s mastermind, Jolijt Tamanaha has its perks. As the de facto ambassador from students to their excellencies Bon Appetit and Dining Services, Ms. Fooducated gets the inside scoop.
Since I won the chance to escort Ms. Fooducated to the Rogue Chefs’ secret dinner back in December, she and I cemented our friendship with an unshakeable passion for really, really good food.
Sometimes even an ambassador needs a night off. When Jolijt offered me the chance to be a guest writer on Fooducated, I jumped at the chance. I knew that whatever event she needed me to cover would be fantastic, but I wasn’t quite ready for this.
At six o’clock I nervously approached the door to Studio 40, next to the WUrld Fusion station in BD and waited anxiously for the thirteen other guests to arrive. We were the lucky fourteen students who would get to try the second in a series of pop up restaurants hosted by WashU’s chefs. A delightfully chipper woman scolded me as I tried to peek through the window. When the door finally swung open, I was awestruck. We had been magically transported from St. Louis, Missouri, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The tables were only inches off the ground, surrounded by burlap cushions handmade out of Kaldi’s coffee bean bags by Lorni, director of the Village Dining Hall. Colorful fabrics covered the tables and hung from the walls of our teleportation device. Beaded vases filled the corners, and a series of photographs offered views like windows out onto the rugged landscape and rich history of Ethiopia. While much of the region was predominantly influenced by Islamic cultures, Ethiopia had the additional influence of Jews and Coptic Christians. This blending of cultures and flavors created a varied and unique cuisine, of which, despite the lengthy menu in front of me, we would only sample a small portion.
Chef Hayes had chosen a selection of some of the most iconic dishes of Ethiopian cuisine; it was clear that this dinner was as much the chef’s exploration as it was an attempt to introduce WU students to something new.
The name of the pop up restaurant, BerBere, comes from name of a spice mixture unique to Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines. It’s a mixture of 38 different spices and herbs, including chilies, garlic, ginger, basil, fenugreek, and a bunch of stuff I’ve never heard of.
The first items arrived while we took a quick tour of the South 40 kitchen. There were no utensils – we would be eating with our fingers in the traditional manner of Ethiopia.
The Dabo Kolo weren’t hard to pick up. These little balls of fried dough didn’t seem exotic in concept, but they had a complex flavor, which I learned was the berbere spice mixture.
They were so pop-able that I had to restrain myself so I wouldn’t fill up on the dense bread. I took a sip of my Fruit Punch to wash it down.
I have suspicions about how “authentic” the drink was, but I didn’t care after one sip. The punch was a huge hit, and Chef Hayes revealed the recipe:
- white grape juice
- pineapple juice
- cherry juice
- orange juice
- raspberry juice
- club soda
- and ice cubes that were actually the juice itself, frozen.
Add a little somethin-somethin and you’ll be the hero of your next get together.
Scattered around the table were four bowls of toppings to complement our meal and cool our mouths after a spicy bite. The fresh cheese and yogurt sauce would have been disastrous to pick up with my fingers, but I braved the Tomato-Cucumber Relish and Honey-Spiced Papaya Chutney in order to sample their “pure” flavor.
The Tomato-Cucumber Relish had a little bite from some chopped onion and tang from some white vinegar, but I thought it could use some salt and pepper.
The Honey-Spiced Papaya Chutney was a completely different story.
Chef Hayes had decided to make the dish after he had used the seeds from the papaya to tenderize the goat. Again, maybe not “authentic” but I praise Hayes’ ingenuity; he combined the papaya with some traditional Ethiopian flavors to create a killer new combination. The papaya was a great texture, somewhere between crunchy and squishy. The honey lit up the tip of my tongue with happy sweetness while the spice mix (more berbere?) grew to a dull burn in the back of my mouth like chipotle powder. This was clearly one of the stars of the night, and the main meal hadn’t even arrived yet.
The first course was Sambossas, two beef and two lentil.
I really enjoyed both fillings. The pine nuts with the beef were a great combination, and the lentil had a nice spice mix. The crust was delicious. It was flaky and buttery. My only critique was that I would have liked a little more filling to crust ratio. The mint and bright yogurt sauce on the plate offered counterpoints to the heaviness of meat and fried crust.
Our meal arrived on a tin plate with a layer of injera bread and portions of each dish distributed across the top. To prepare for our meal, Chef Hayes started yesterday by butchering a whole goat and starting the yeast dough for our injera.
Injera is the staple of Ethiopian cuisine – it is the plate and the utensil. Not a drop of the saucy dishes are wasted with injera to mop it up. Because of how crucial injera is, it is often the mark of a quality Ethiopian restaurant. For me, a good injera is a little like a good crumpet – tangy from the yeast and pockmarked with large holes on one side and weirdly spongy.
With the arrival of the injera, I finally got to try the Ethiopian Iab. This homemade cheese was a lot like cottage cheese. The Yogurt Sauce was also quite yummy, especially the chopped mint mixed in. I thought if anything it could have been a little runnier, maybe from some olive oil whipped in.
Next I tried the Tikil Gomen – cabbage and potatoes. This dish has never been a favorite of mine at Ethiopia restaurants, and tonight wasn’t much different. It always seems to be a side dish that rounds out the meal but doesn’t offer much flavor. However, the potatoes were a notably good al dente texture. I thought the Ye-abesha Gomen – collard greens – were similar. They tasted mostly like the julienned and limp peppers cooked in with them.
In any case I loaded up the toppings in different combinations to see what would brighten up the vegetables. I found a good mix between the collards and the yogurt sauce. Earlier I applauded Chef Hayes’ ingenuity for the fruit punch and papaya topping. I think the vegetables might have suffered from being too traditional.
The Spiced Chickpeas were, on the other hand, a delight. Loaded up with carrots and peas, they hid a sneaking heat that blossomed into a full-mouth smolder. They were also great with a dollop of the cheese curds to soothe the numb tongue.
The Doro Wat – a chicken stew served with a hard-boiled egg – was good. It is one of the most common Ethiopian dishes served in America. Often I have had this dish with a bone-in drumstick. I somewhat missed the large chunks of chicken that one pulls off the bone. The sauce was heavy on the tomato paste with a mild and somewhat sneaking heat. However the egg was perfectly hard-boiled with no grey layer around the yolk. The yolk itself was not chalky at all.
The Roasted Goat was a surprise. It sat on my plate in big chunks, threatening to leave me flossing for hours. In spite of my fears, not a single bit of goat was remotely stringy; Chef Hayes had worked his papaya-magic and created an incredible tender and edible dish! But the biggest surprise to me was the flavor. This was no mutton. This mellow fellow was my favorite dish of the night, winning my heart with a sumptuously rich, even marrow-like flavor. Given the option, I would have eaten three times as much and skipped dessert.
Except nobody would have wanted to miss dessert. It was so good that we called for second and third helpings in to go containers.
Chef Hayes had whipped up his own honey flavored ice cream. Next to it were bananas, said to be in ginger syrup, though the ginger wasn’t potent. The flavor that shone through was the honey itself. Not merely sweet, this honey had a lovely floral aroma. I bit into the tiny chunk of comb sitting atop my ice cream, and a shot of ecstasy flooded my body.
Last but certainly not least was a tiny cup of coffee, prepared Bloom-style, from Ethiopian beans. It’s notes of vanilla complemented the dessert beautifully, and, though it was strong, it was not bitter at all.
I had seconds of coffee as well.
With a full belly and eyes twinkling in awe, I stumbled out of Studio 40 with my handmade burlap floor cushion under my arm. I hail from the Washington, DC, area, which has one of the largest concentrations of Ethiopians and Eritreans outside of their countries – one neighborhood is even called Little Ethiopia. I have tried Ethiopian food multiple times and WU impressed me. The goat was certainly the best I’ve ever had.
But what impressed me even more was the fact that our chefs and Dining services staffs care so much. They definitely care about the students eating well every day. But they also care about making each meal an experience. Every dish goes through countless taste tests and continuous revisions. Even if they can’t always deck out the room with fabrics, vases, and hand stitched cushions, they strive to make each bite of food transport you to a place, whether Ethiopia, India, Italy, or home. I’m sincerely moved by the passion I witnessed at BerBere, and I was reminded how lucky I am. Keep up the great work! Until next time, betam ahmesuganalew, dehna hun!
A note from Jolijt: Oh my god… I am drooling and dying of jealousy. I hope you enjoyed Brendan’s excellent post as much as I did! Click here to read the post about the first WU Restaurant. I will be at the next WU Restaurant dinner (sorry Brendan) and you can be there too! Just like Dining Services on Facebook and keep your eyes out for when they launch the event page.