A TRADITIONAL ETHIOPIAN coffee ceremony can take up to 90 minutes, a relatively short amount of time considering that Ethiopians were the first to discover centuries ago how to turn this previously disregarded fruit into the drink that fuels nations today. At Selam Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine, it is a much shorter but still delightful coda to a relaxing meal that is steeped in tradition.
Most Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants– the now neighboring countries were one until the early 1990s, and their cuisines may seem nearly identical to a first-time diner–focus on the same dishes that their countrymen have loved for generations, and the menu here echoes those options. Look for a variety of wats made from beef, lamb, or chicken stewed in a thick sauce seasoned with berbere; or tibs, meat, or mushrooms sautéed with spices, onions, and other vegetables; kitfo, a dish of spiced lean beef served tartare style (or to desired wellness) with house-made soft cheese; and an array of delicately spiced vegetarian dishes made of lentils, split peas, collards, and more.
Whether you sit at a conventional table or–as per the custom in Ethiopia and Eritrea– in low seats around a round table that serves as a shared platter, entrées are served on top of a spongy mat of injera bread, with extra roll-ups on the side for scooping up morsels of food with your hands. While this style of eating was likely born out of necessity, it does lend itself to the convivial feeling of sharing a meal here, as do sips of tej, an Ethiopian honey wine.
Coffee is a similarly laid-back affair, at least for guests. Servers roast coffee beans in a shallow pan until the beans are slightly blackened. Then they bring the pan out to the dining room so that each guest can soak in the aroma of the roasting beans along with burning incense. They then add the ground beans to hot water in a long-necked clay pot called a jebana and pour it tableside into delicate cups. Custom dictates that each guest enjoy three cups before leaving the table and the company of your hosts. The choice is yours, of course, but once you've enjoyed a cup or three of this restaurant's hospitality, you'll likely return for more.
Selam Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine, 5494 Central Florida Pkwy., Orlando; (407) 778- 3119; ethiopianrestaurantorlando.com
Excerpted from Unique Eats and Eateries of Orlando by Kendra Lott, published by Reedy Press. Available on Amazon on May 15.