Friday, September 14, 2018

Little Eritrea on Casco Bay

For the past thirty summers I have vacationed on a small lake in rural Maine. From the outset I made peace with the fact that I would have to put my long affinity for traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine on a back burner until I returned home to Washington, DC in the autumn. A panoply of fresh seafood from the coast of Maine, including lobster, clams and oysters, would have to keep my taste buds occupied in the interim.
Then one day just a few summers ago, while walking along a side street in Portland’s Arts District near the Old Port, I was pleasantly surprised when I chanced upon Asmara, an Eritrean restaurant. As it turns out, in recent years Portland and Cumberland County have become home to roughly 5,000 immigrants from East Africa (Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania, and Ethiopia), including a fast growing number of Eritreans fleeing the brutal dictatorship in that country. So it should not be a surprise that restaurants and cafés sprang up catering to those seeking out the traditional cuisine of their homelands.

A meal at Asmara quickly reintroduced me to the basic similarities and differences between Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine I had learned from frequenting traditional restaurants in and around Washington. (Next month I will be posting more details on the evolution of traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean eateries in our Nation’s Capitol and my ongoing quest for the perfect yebeg tibs.) A popular traditional Eritrean dish is tsebhi, a meat stew which is served with taita, the Eritrean version of injera, a spongy bread made from tef and wheat or sorghum flour, and hilbet, a paste consisting of lentils and faba beans. It tends to be lighter in texture than the Ethiopian equivalent resulting from a sparing use of seasoned clarified butter. Owing to the country’s Italian colonial past, Eritrean dishes reflect the use of Italian and Ottoman Turkish ingredients such as pasta and a greater use of curries and cumin than are found in Ethiopian dishes (despite the fact that much of Ethiopia was briefly occupied by Italy in World War II). On my first visit to the Asmara I naturally chose zegente tibsi, which is quite similar to yebeg tibs (my favorite Ethiopian dish) accompanied with alitcha, a mixture of chopped potatoes, cabbage, and carrots slow cooked in mild spices, and the ubiquitous taita. I have returned to Asmara a few times and sampled some of the other fine traditional dishes is offers.

A couple months ago I drove my wife down to the Portland airport to catch a flight to Florida and I took the opportunity to visit the Red Sea (a popular name among traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean eateries), another popular Eritrean café situated in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood in the city’s East End which is now the epicenter of the local Eritrean population. I have been driving past it for several years and so I was happy to have a chance to finally try it out.

The Red Sea is almost a hole-in-the-wall operation. The
dining room is only large enough for six four-top tables and the kitchen measures approximately ten feet by ten feet. The owner waits tables while his wife cooks. The menu is in many ways quite similar to that of Asmara which I found rather impressive considering the size of the kitchen. I was curious to try its version of zegente tibsi but chose instead to go with an interesting variation - zegente fitfit tibsi – a dish made from minced lamb sautéed with berbere spice and finished up with breaking up and mixing in small pieces of taita; all of this served over a whole piece of taita along with an outstanding alitcha side dish.

I look forward to returning to the Red Sea before we head home at the beginning of October so that I might sample its version of zigni, one of the first of these wonderful traditional Eritrean dishes I first discovered at the old Red Sea restaurant in Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington. It is not all that common at Ethiopian eateries at home in Washington. More on that later.

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