No fork required

As obsessed as Americans are with food—lots of it, from all different cultures—we seem to have lost our sense of savoring the pleasures and rituals of a meal. We eat in our cars, we eat at our desks, we eat in front of the television, and we snack relentlessly. We eat on autopilot, as if the only reasons to eat were for sustenance or out of habit. This shift is likely an important factor in the so-called productivity gains much touted by the soulless economic community. And it is probably a major reason we Americans are fat.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And in many parts of the world, it isn’t that way. Take Ethiopia, for example. Ethiopian food is more communal than almost any other type of ethnic food. The hallmark of Ethiopian cuisine consists of sharing food on one giant plate and using enjera—a spongy, sour, pliable flat bread—to scoop up the various shared dishes.

Enjera is the common thread of almost every meal for Ethiopia’s middle and upper classes. Prepared much as it was 1,000 years ago, enjera is both an eating utensil and a palette for other foods to lie on. It lines the giant plate, soaking up the sauces and spices of the various dishes piled on top. The eating of this lining or “tablecloth” signifies that the meal is officially over, completing the communal Ethiopian dining experience.

This brings me to Queen Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant tucked into an Asian-dominated corner of Howe Avenue off Arden Way. Queen Sheba neighbors a Mongolian barbecue joint, a Vietnamese restaurant and at least one other restaurant of Asian-seeming origin. It’s a hard place to find, given the rushing traffic on Howe, unless you know what you’re looking for.

The small plaza where it is housed is an unglamorous location. The restaurant is similarly plain. The interior is split into two rooms: A smaller, casual front room holds booths, and a larger, adjacent dining room has tables. The color red is featured prominently on the floors, and simple depictions of Ethiopian figures adorn the walls.

Zion Taddese and her brother Eskinder opened Queen Sheba on Howe Avenue eight months ago. Eskinder ran a restaurant by the same name on J and 10th streets several years back, but a lackluster dinner crowd in the downtown area forced him to close. The new location, albeit tucked away, is a better lure for dinner. Together, the siblings offer friendly and attentive service along with spicy, flavorful dishes that follow the traditions of Ethiopian dining.

We started with the famed honey wine, tej, which Ethiopians often make themselves. Though, ideally, the wine is supposed to be sweet, this one was more alcoholic than expected. Once we began eating, however, the flavor of the honey wine mellowed out and complemented the spices in the food.

We ordered two of the three combination plates on the menu, which allowed us to sample six different dishes arranged symmetrically on a giant plate. In the center was gomen, a dish of cooked spinach, collard greens, onions and garlic. Gomen was highly reminiscent of collards in soul-food cooking and was just as delicious as any collard-green dish I’ve ever tasted. At 3 o’clock was the miser kik wot (wot meaning “stew”), a satisfying, mild-flavored dish made with lentils and spices.

At 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock were similar-tasting dishes—doro wot and gored gored. Doro wot is a popular dish with chicken leg and hard-boiled egg, served on a dark bed of simmered vegetables and spices. It has the color, consistency and heat of a fiery chili. While the doro wot housed the chicken family, the gored gored held beef cubes in a similar mélange. Both were spiced in Ethiopian fashion, with lots of red pepper or, more likely, lots of berbere. Berbere—a traditional mix of at least a dozen spices, including paprika, hot chilis, turmeric, ginger and cardamom—is what gives Ethiopian food its distinct flavors.

If these two dishes resembled chili, the tibbs dish (11 o’clock) was more like an Ethiopian version of fajitas, with chunks of lean beef, sautéed onions, green peppers and garlic. The alicha doro wot (7 o’clock) was familiar in a curry-like way, with small cubes of skinless chicken breast, mushrooms, cauliflower and broccoli in a mild turmeric sauce. Each dish was distinctive and well-spiced, although the heat of the doro wot and gored gored dominated in the end.

We filled ourselves by wrapping up morsels of each dish in the rolled enjera served on the side and grew too full to eat the “tablecloth” enjera, which was soaked with the sauces and spices of the various dishes. We also skipped coffee at the end of the dinner, although coffee drinking has great significance in Ethiopia. Ceremonial in nature, beans are freshly roasted, ground and brewed and then served in tiny cups with sugar but no milk. You are supposed to drink three cupfuls for a blessing.

Unfortunately for us, our meal was never finished, and no blessings were received. But we felt lucky in another way. The flavors and customs of Ethiopian dining offered a glimpse of eating as it once was and should be again for the hurried masses—a practice in the art of living.