You may have already heard of or read about the graceful Ananya Banerjee in a different context. She's been an accomplished artist for years and her home is testament to her talent. Its beautiful décor, complete with pristine couches, brass artefacts, thick rugs and intricately carved antique wood furniture, is brought to life by her vibrant paintings.
It's in this gorgeous setting that she welcomes you and introduces you to another kind of artistry... her culinary skills. While she's published a cookbook that boasts recipes from across the world (Planet Gastronomy), what this home chef is focussing on now is a pop-up experience of an Ethiopian spread, which is exciting for most adventurous eaters. I've been to the African continent thrice (South Africa, Kenya and Egypt) but have never encountered any version of Ethiopian cuisine. Friends in the US have gushed about it but, sadly, I didn't try it out when I was in New York. So, the chance to try it close to home is very tempting.
The gracious hosts (Ananya and her high-flying husband Robin) welcome us with a chilled mocktail Mojito that banishes the Mumbai mugginess from memory. As I snuggle my toes cosily into the furry rug underfoot, platters of appetisers are passed around. Ananya explains that Ethiopians believe in getting straight to the mains, so she's innovated a bit with these, offering hummus flavoured with a zingy peri peri sauce along with various crispies and parsley and cream dip. Next are sweet corn canapés and a tasty chicken appetiser, in bread cups baked in ramekins.
But as delightful as the conversation and starters are, everyone's curious about what to expect from the main meal. Ananya explains how it's traditionally eaten together from one large plate, much like a Bohri thaal. She's made it easier for us to break bread with near strangers though, by serving it up in individual portions. The mainstay is the Injera, an Ethiopian sourdough crepe with a delicate, spongy texture. On this are heaped all the other dishes. You have to break off pieces of the bread with your hand to eat the meal Indian-style, dipping into the curries and scooping up the veggies with the injera. Ananya explains how she has substituted the teff flour with three other local ones to get the authentic taste and texture.
As she talks about the spice mixes and tells us about the flavours that are foreign yet familiar, it brings to mind the spice route, which originated from India and influenced the cuisine of so many countries, including Ethiopia. On an entirely different continent, among people of a different race, with different traditions, likes and dislikes, spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and fenugreek infused the meat, poultry, lentils and vegetables with flavours that we find so familiar. The cooking techniques may vary, the names are certainly very different, but this cuisine blends the everyday with the exotic. Just perfect for those who want to try something new but are also partial to a hearty, masaledar meal, I think, as I help myself to my first taste of Ethiopian.
The gravy dish today is a Dodo Wat, a slow-cooked chicken stew ('wat' means stew) which always has eggs added in. It's a lot like home-cooked chicken curry but the infusion of a red pepper paste called berberé gives it a nice spicy twist. The vegetarians aren't left out, the flavourful veggie version is redolent with cardamom. I really enjoy the stir-fried Tibs, both veg and non-veg, high on spices, high on taste, but not overwhelming the palate with chillies. The pickled carrots and beets, sautéed greens and the wholesome rice dish are interesting enough accompaniments. However, in my opinion, the lentils (Bengal gram prepared Ethiopian style) seem enough like regular daal to be given a miss, unless pulses make your pulse race.
Dessert too, like appetisers, isn't normally part of an Ethiopian meal, Ananya tells us. Just what is it with these Ethiopians, I wonder... NO sweets?!! But before a sugar-deprived panic attack sets in, Ananya brings in her gigantic platter of Baklava. Not quite African, but who am I to quibble when there are succulent layers of sweet filo pastry and a decadent pistachio filling to chew on. AND a bowl of Sheer Kurma for those who like their desserts rich and slurp-worthy!
After this memorable meal, with both, our appetite and our curiosity completely sated, we can safely check Ethiopian off our list of must-try cuisines.
Ananya's next Ethiopian pop-up is lunch on Sunday, July 26, 2015. You can book the experience on https://www.trekurious.com/experiences/the-injera-chronicles--by-ananya-banerjee