Last night a group of 11 friends got together at Harar Mesob in the Arlington neighborhood of Crystal City. The occasion was our friend Linda’s birthday. Linda spent some time in east Africa and this is one of her favorite cuisines and Harar Mesob one of her favorite restaurants.
What a great place! Harar Mesob is a warm comfortable spot with an outdoor deck and cozy interior. The servers all appear delighted to be there and determined that guests enjoy a fun evening.
Ethiopian food is a built-in party to begin with because the food is served on communal platters. Instead of forks and knives one uses bread to pick up and eat food. The whole experience is quite different from any other cuisine and I find it exotic and beautiful.
The distinctive bread is called injera and has a spongy pancake quality. Veterans will warn you to stop eating before you are full because the bread expands after you eat it. Good luck stopping though because the food tastes so good you will need superior self-discipline.
The first platter that came out was a vegetarian platter. It did not have a special name and was in fact called “Special Veggie Combo 2”, but even that looks exotic on the menu because the Ethiopians use a script called Ge’ez that dates back to 9th Century BC.
The platter was beautiful! There was a sampling of vegetarian dishes that included a red lentil dish, a yellow lentil dish, a cabbage dish, a tomato salad, a potato salad, and a collard green dish.
Each of these had its own unique flavor, but each also had a common spiciness, the result of a spice mixture called berbere. This powdered mix of spices and chilis is to Ethiopia sort of what curry is to India.
We also ordered meat dishes. These are mostly in the form of stews called wot (sometimes spelled wat) and sautéed or grilled dishes called tibs. Again, these are intensely flavored somewhat spicy, and exotic.
The very practice of eating with bread as your utensil, and from a communal platter makes for a great social occasion. You can’t help but discuss each dish and your impressions. Add to that the crisp Ethiopian lager called Meta and you’ve got a party!