The first time I encountered Ethiopian food, I was scarred enough by the experience that for the next ten years, whenever anyone asked "What should we have for dinner tonight?," I'd answer "anything but Ethiopian" in the same strangled way I might say, "I'm allergic to sea urchin" or "the haggis is all yours." I'm not ordinarily picky about food. Tongue sandwiches and Caesar salad dripping with egg yolk were two of my favorite early-childhood treats. I've happily gobbled up unidentifiable offerings from Korea, Bolivia, Scandinavia, Morocco, Texas, Afghanistan, even British Railways. But something about the oily spicy stews and sweet-spongy breadstuffs of Ethiopia affected me deeply, even more than the damnable artichokes and avocados that plagued my youth and that I have evolved enough to appreciate, nay adore.
Well, either my tastebuds have reevolved over the past decade or the chefs at Shashamane serve up Ethiopian cooking at a level of wit and skill lacking from those earlier encounters. The restaurant, located along Oakland's Auto Row, offers impressive dishes from this ancient cuisine in a spectrum of tastes and textures that are tantalizing and unusual as well as absolutely delicious.
The key to Ethiopia's unique cookery is the ring of impenetrable escarpments that kept this fertile plateau immune from foreign influences for centuries. Here the elemental flavors of honey, grain, livestock, and a bazaar's worth of spices met and mingled in savory dishes unique to this corner of the world. And it was here that Emperor Haile Selassie established the town of Shashamane sixty years ago as a homeland for blacks in the Western Hemisphere (predominantly Jamaicans) in search of their African heritage.
The town's namesake restaurant is sleek, attractive, and welcoming. There are many aspects to the place: a lively light-bedecked granite bar, a small adjacent area for live music, an upstairs gallery of African-themed art, the Overlook Lounge (a dark and moody refuge for private parties), and a smallish dining room done up in rustic art and earth tones of red, mustard, and brown. Even the reed-bound menu is a tactile work of art.
The cuisine's primary components — berbere, a fiery spice paste fragrant with peppers, ginger, and fenugreek; injera, the fermented pancake-like bread that is to Ethiopia what rice is to China or sourdough is to San Francisco; rich goulashes of onion, garlic, a dozen or so spices, and beef, lamb, chicken, or vegetables — are traditionally eaten family style, and Shashamane is nothing if not traditional. A large round platter is draped with an injera pancake the size of a wagon wheel, and arrayed atop it are the entrées of your choice. The idea is to tear off a piece of injera with the right hand and use it to scoop up the goods and transfer the package mouthward. Like any communal dining experience — fondue, paella, hotpot — it's a fun and festive approach to mealtime, an encouragement to friendship, and is even better if the food in question's at all tasty.
And it is, at least at 2507 Broadway. Start off with sambusas, warm-from-the-oil meat or vegetable turnovers. The veggie sambusa features a rich earthy filling of mashed lentils, herbs, onions, and greens; the ground beef variety is reminiscent of a good retro taco. Or opt for the spiced chicken wings which are, let's face it, Buffalo wings, nothing remotely Abyssinian about them, but they're ridiculously warm and finger-lickingly irresistible just the same.
The meal really begins with one of those communal entrées. Yebeg tibs combines tender cubes of lamb with sautéed onion, tomato, and jalapeño into a simple yet fulfilling example of comfort food. Gomen be siga (only available Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays) is a lush, mildly pungent, wonderfully complex dish of ginger, garlic, niter kebeh (the spicy butter oil of long Ethiopian tradition), tender chunks of beef, and chopped collard greens. Kitfo, the classic highly spiced Ethiopian steak tartare, is served here with its traditional accompaniments of collards and (housemade) cottage cheese; the cool, tangy curds are a soothing complement to the torrid, rich, and creamy raw beef. The crisp, bracing green salad and the slightly sour-spongy injera that accompany each dish provide further pleasing contrasts.
Happily for vegetarians, Ethiopia has a long tradition of fast days (the country's northern reaches have a rich biblical heritage) that have resulted in a whole panoply of meatless dishes. In addition to the veggie sambusa appetizer and a couple of salads, Shashamane serves an entire menu of flesh-free specialties. Ater kik alicha is a thick soothing dish of yellow split peas puréed with ginger, garlic, onions, and basil; gomen wot, chopped collard greens simmered in onion, garlic, and spiced oil, is sweet, pungent, and bright with flavor. The meser wot — spiced, puréed split red lentils — is on the bland side despite a blazing undertone of berbere, but the atakelt wot is a rich, delectable casserole of cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and red onions jazzed with garlic and spice.
Starring on the restaurant's wine list are two varieties of tej, the honey wine that is as much a part of Ethiopian cuisine as injera or berbere. Sweet, warming, and intensely floral — it tastes of blossoming orchards and fragrant meadows — the premium-dry Yamatt Tej is served in an attractive glass carafe with an ice-filled inner chamber to keep the wine cool. The seventeen other offerings (fourteen by the glass) include two spicy, earthy Syrahs ideal alongside this spicy, earthy cuisine. Beers include such complementary brews as Eye of the Hawk and Chimay Red, and the full bar muddles up a mean caipirinha.
Following Ethiopian tradition, Shashamane doesn't have a dessert menu, but starting in the next few weeks the restaurant plans to offer the Ethiopian coffee ceremony on Saturdays and Sundays. As the ostensible birthplace of caffeine (the fruit of wild coffee trees have provided quick energy to the locals for millennia), Ethiopia takes its coffee seriously. Traditionally it's spiced, boiled, and boiled again until the bean's essential intensity is brought forth: an appropriate meal-closer for this rich, intense, elemental cuisine.
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