My favourite thing about living in Toronto is the multiculturalism. By welcoming individuals from a wide-variety of backgrounds, our city becomes a more vibrant, interesting and delicious place to live. In my Global Food in Toronto Series I’m travelling the globe by eating one local meal from every country in the world without leaving Toronto. This time I’m tasting Ethiopian food in Toronto.
Ethiopian Food in Toronto
Companion: My sister, Meredith.
Menu: Dor Wat. Lega Tibs. Vegetarian Platter. Ethiopian Coffee Roasting Ritual.
The Ethiopian district in Toronto is, at least unofficially, located between Greenwood and Monarch Park on Danforth Avenue. I had lived less than 10 minutes away from this neighbourhood for two years, but had shamefully never ventured into an Ethiopian restaurant. It was time to change that!
On a Thursday in May, my sister Meredith and I met at Rendez-Vous Restaurant, chosen due to it’s excellent online reputation. We opted to order the Vegetarian Platter so we could try a wide variety of Ethiopian food staples. The platter included keyser (beets), fasolia (green beans), gomen (collard greens), tikil gomen (carrots and potatoes in sauce), yemeser wat (split lentil stew), yekik wat (split peas in sauce) and tomato salad. Wanting to try some meat dishes as well, we also ordered dor wat, a spicy chicken dish with boiled egg, and lega tibs, a dish of lamb morsels sautéed in onions, peppers and spices.
Or at least that’s what the menu said. What arrived on the plate may have been slightly different as I wondered if the lamb was in fact pork, the chicken was mild and didn’t receive the tikil gomen. While we didn’t ask the waitstaff to confirm our suspicions, we agreed that chefs should have the freedom to make decisions based fresh ingredients and daily inspiration. We enjoyed the complex, well balanced flavours that interestingly included freshly ground cloves and cinnamon.
All the food was served on a communal platter which I really enjoyed as sharing allowed us to try many different dishes. A key component of Ethiopian cuisine is the injera bread that facilitates eating with your hands. It arrived both as the base of the platter and also on the side in lieu of cutlery. While I really enjoyed eating with my hands, we both found we ate too much injera while scooping up the other delicious food. We questioned if beets or tomato salad really needed a bread layer and if we could simply eat them with our fingers (confession: we did). It made me wonder if this system of eating could be a cultural adaptation based on the fact that grains are often more plentiful and filling even when access to vegetables or meat is limited.After dinner, we decided to try the freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee experience. According to the menu, it should be ordered before the meal but we were in no rush, so we waited the 30 or so minutes it took to prepare. After about 15 minutes, the chef came to the table with a pan of sizzling blackened beans and wafted the resulting smoke in our direction, then all over the restaurant. We commented that it smelt a lot like burnt popcorn. A little while later, she brought us our extremely unexpected “coffee snack” – a huge bowl of popcorn! We didn’t get an explanation for the popcorn and what role it might play in the roasting process, but we did enjoy eating it despite our very full bellies.
Shortly thereafter she presented us with the coffee itself in a beautiful wooden pot accompanied by a smoky, aromatic Frankincense burner. Our drinks were poured in a lovely ritual that involved using gravity to froth the coffee, and adding steamed milk and sugar on request. I chose to have my first one black to savour the coffee flavour. Luckily the tiny cups made it possible for me to try the second with milk and the third with milk and sugar.
The coffee itself was delicious, but I couldn’t help wondering what was the significance of the coffee ceremony. Was it part of an everyday Ethiopian lifestyle or was it reserved for special occasions? While I thoroughly enjoyed our experience eating Ethiopian in Toronto, I wanted to know more about the ingredients selected and the recipes used in the meal. Did the owner learn them from her own mother perhaps? Where these ingredients common in Ethiopia or had locally available substitutes been made? I realized that for me, even though the food was excellent and the flavours intriguing, the meal wasn’t complete without learning about the culture and environment from which it originally came. In this future, I’ll endeavour to seek out these stories.
Have you ever had an Ethiopian meal? What was your favourite dish?
Now It’s Your Turn! Get out there and try a style of food you’ve never had. I know it can be intimidating to order something you don’t recognize, but sharing a few dishes or a platter with friends is a great way to experiment. Try ordering 1-2 dishes with ingredients you know you enjoy, and 1-2 dishes that are completely unfamiliar. You’ll be sure to have something delicious to eat and be able to expand your knowledge of global flavours. Subscribe here to receive more stories in the Global Food in Toronto Series.