Some Like it Hot
[from January 2006 issue]

Christopher Columbus may well have been the very first European to discover the pleasures and pain of chilies. It is even suggested that he may have been the first one to cook up a venomously hot pepper sauce, myth though that be. But all chili fanatics owe Columbus a debt of gratitude: From him and others, of course -- the world outside of the Americas gradually became addicted to that explosively hot chili taste now used almost universally to perk up bland foods.

Among the world of clever chili cooks, Ethiopians can proudly take their place, because they have devised a repertoire of chili-laden dishes that can take on all challengers. And if you are really, really hooked on the delicious slow burn, you might head directly to U Street’s Dukem Restaurant, an area favorite that commands a corner site at 12th Street and with an entrance on U Street, a separate Ethiopian market that sells injera bread (the traditionally spongy flat bread that serves as plate, food, and utensil), CDs, charcoal, newspapers, tea, spices, and take-out orders.

But once you are inside the restaurant, take time to read through the very extensive menu, with a show of dishes that should give you a fair understanding of much of how Ethiopians eat -- everything from a beef tibs to a kwanta fitfit to a melassena senber, and lots in between. For the uninitiated, and that probably includes the majority of non-Ethiopians, be sure to ask for guidance. The chili quotient of some dishes can be a minefield of fire.

That settled, and feeling comfortable ordering a 6,000-volt meal, be sure to ask for the spicy version of the lamb wot, a stew of lamb cubes served in a sauce that is almost as dark as chocolate. And don’t be fooled for one minute if your first several bites seem oddly bland. Without warning, the burn sets in; you may think, “Oh, Lord, I’m having a heart attack,” when it’s merely the way certain chilies affect your palate and esophagus. And you’ll need plenty of cold liquids -- beer, soda, water -- to tamp down the sting.

And then, it all smoothes out. Your extra piece of injera is gone, and you are working on the large injera circle that serves as plate. The waitress may offer you more injera, and you decide that your best bet is to get a take-out order so you can prolong the pleasure/pain at home. Let me suggest the beef tibs, just as fiery, but in a different way and in a sauce that seems slightly more acidic.

From an uninitiated viewpoint, I’d say this food seems really authentic -- at least, it has enough flavor to carry through until the next day. But instead of a scoop of salad, the kitchen should serve their dishes with the more typical ladleful of cooked veggies. And…why not use the very colorful woven-basket tables many Ethiopian restaurants use?

For a totally different experience, you can saunter on down to 9th and U, turn right, and go to Etete, a very sleek, up-scale version of an Ethiopian restaurant completely without any native trappings. Indeed, with its slick bar and up-scale décor, you may think you’ve wandered into a downtown DC hot spot.

The menu is considerably shorter, too, but offers at least one dish not always available at Dukem: azifa. This is a marvelous lentil salad composed of cooked and partially mashed lentils stirred with chopped chilies, lime juice, and a daub of Ethiopian mustard. It’s delicious, and an example of how lentils can become totally addictive legumes.

We also ordered a vegetarian entrée -- the waitress brought us a combination of various cooked vegetables served on the injera -- and a serving of doro wot, the fabled chicken stew usually made with drumsticks; this is satisfyingly hot, though not at the same BTUs as Dukem’s lamb wot. The menu also features several pasta dishes; we didn’t ask, but are these Ethiopian?

Anyway, Ethiopian cooking thrives along the U Street corridor, and the interested could probably take on an eating exploration of the various outlets there. Maybe Ethiopian cooking will be the next Thai food; at least, for chileheads, it is already a significant hit.

Dukem Restaurant, 1114-1118 U St.; tel., 667-8735. Hours: daily, 11am-3am. Major credit cards. (Frequent nighttime entertainment; call for schedule.)

Etete Ethiopian Cuisine, 1942-9th St.; tel., 232-7600. Hours: daily, 11am-1am. Major credit cards.

Copyright (c) 2006 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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