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Non-African's Guide to African Food in Winnipeg

If you grew up in a European-Canadian household, one of the first lessons you learned as a kid was to never, ever eat with your hands.

This gets hammered into your head as soon as you're old enough to hold a fork and knife. Doing otherwise was viewed as a sign of incivility, even though many, if not most, regions of the world do just fine without utensils of any sort.

Robel Arefaine and Hamelamal Shibshi hold a mixed platter from Kokeb Restaurant on Ellice Avenue. Winnipeg restaurant-goers have been enjoying delights from East Africa since the first wave of immigrants arrived on the Prairies in the 1980s.


Robel Arefaine and Hamelamal Shibshi hold a mixed platter from Kokeb Restaurant on Ellice Avenue. Winnipeg restaurant-goers have been enjoying delights from East Africa since the first wave of immigrants arrived on the Prairies in the 1980s. Photo Store

As a kid, you may have sensed the innate weirdness of avoiding the use of the most dexterous part of your anatomy to conduct such an important act. You may have even entered adulthood secretly waiting to revolt.

Hence the liberation many North Americans feel the first time they eat in an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, where food typically arrives on a communal plate of injera, a spongy flatbread used as an edible serving utensil.

In East Africa, where human beings have been living and eating for a lot longer than just about anywhere else, fingers do just fine, thank you very much. Not only is injera useful as a means of conveying stews to your taste buds, it's extremely efficient at sopping up the remains of sauces.

Winnipeg restaurant-goers have been enjoying injera and other Ethiopian and Eritrean foodstuffs ever since the first wave of East African immigrants arrived on the Prairies in the 1980s. But even though dishes such as doro wat and beef tibs have become familiar taste sensations, the average Winnipegger would be hard-pressed to identify them by name.

This is mainly due to the communal nature of East African food: Since it all arrives on one big platter and all tends to be very tasty, there's no urgency involved in figuring out what's what.

To that end, here's a Non-African's Guide to African Food in Winnipeg, weighted very heavily to the cuisine of Ethiopia and Eritrea. There are other African emigres here, but they have not had as great an effect on the average restaurant-goer.

Alicha (Ethiopia and Eritrea): The term alicha appears to be applied to a variety of meat or vegetable stews, but most commonly -- at least in Winnipeg -- a bright-yellow dish of sautéed cabbage and potatoes, seasoned with turmeric.

Awaze (Ethiopia and Eritrea): A dipping sauce made from berbere (see below) and any number of liquids -- traditionally honey wine in Africa but more likely lemon juice and olive oil in North America.

Berbere (Ethiopia and Eritrea): The most common spice mixture in Ethiopian/Eritrean cuisine is a deep red powder of chile, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, pepper and dried herbs. Available at East African grocers.

Biltong (South Africa): Cured and dried beef, similar to jerky. Look for it at independent butchers.

Collards (Central and southern Africa): Leafy greens, related to cabbage but usually prepared like spinach. Also popular in Portugal, South America and the U.S. South. Available in many Winnipeg supermarkets; remove the fibrous stem before cooking.

Coffee (Everywhere): North America's most popular hot beverage was first cultivated in Ethiopia.

Couscous (North Africa): Small grains of durum semolina, usually prepared by steaming and then often flavoured with saffron, other spices and vegetables. Originally a staple of Morocco and Tunisia, now common everywhere.

Doro wat (Ethiopia and Eritrea): This chicken stew is the most common dish on an Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant platter. See wat (below).

Fufu (West and Central Africa): A thick paste made from boiled and mashed plantains or root vegetables such as cassava and yams, commonly eaten as a snack. Forget about finding it in Winnipeg, where there are no West African restaurants.

Ful (North and East Africa): A Middle Eastern-style dish of cooked fava beans, mixed with olive oil and spices.

Injera (Ethiopia and Eritrea): A spongy, pancake-like flatbread usually made from lightly fermented teff grain (see below). It tastes vaguely reminiscent of sourdough and serves as a means of both serving and scooping up stews. In Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants, dishes are typically presented on a big platter of injera, with the expectation diners eat communally off the dish.

Kitfo (Ethiopia and Eritrea): The East African version of steak tartare -- raw minced beef, seasoned with spices. May also be made from rare-cooked beef. Leftovers may be fried with leftover injera and eaten like corned-beef hash, another dish originally made from leftovers. The cubed-beef version is called gored gored.

Mitmita (Ethiopia and Eritrea): An orange-red spice mixture used to season kitfo and ful (see above). Usually comprised of ground dried bird peppers, cloves and cardamom. Available at African grocers.

Nitter kibbeh (Ethiopia and Eritrea): Clarified butter, seasoned with spices and then simmered. Used in East African cuisine to impart a complex flavour to stews that also feature the same spices added raw toward the end of the cooking process.

Sambusa (East Africa): The African version of the South Asian samosa is a triangular pastry, filled with minced beef, chicken or vegetables. It's typically lighter than the Indo-Pakistani version.

Tajine (North Africa): A conical pot used to slow-cook North African stews. The lid promotes the condensation of steam, which prevents the dish in question from drying out. Anything cooked in a tajine may be called a tajine.

Teff (East Africa): A gluten-free, high-protein and high-fiber grain used to make injera (see above).

Tibs (Ethiopia and Eritrea): Strips of beef or lamb, sautéed with onions and peppers.

Wat (Ethiopia and Eritrea): A stew of meat or vegetables that begins with a base of onions browned without the aid of any fat. According to the Joy of Cooking, chefs pull this off by constantly stirring sliced onions over low heat, so they cook without burning. Once the onions are browned, they're sautéed in nitter kibbeh (see above) and spices.



Wat, did you say?

A selected list of places to find African food in Winnipeg:

Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants

Kokeb (330 Ellice Ave., 784-9267): Downtown restaurant, offering a vegetarian lunch buffet Tuesdays through Fridays.

Harman's Cafe (570 Sargent Ave., 774-6997): East African dishes grace the diverse menu of this West End spot which also serves sandwiches and some Chinese items.

Massawa (121 Osborne St., 284-3194): Osborne Village fixture, beloved by devotees but infamous for slow service.

Merkato (352 Cumberland Ave., 947-9802): Friendly spot hidden away in a downtown apartment building on the edge of the Exchange District.

Modern: East African Tapas (350 Portage Ave., 415-7515): Winnipeg's newest Ethiopian/Eritrean spot offers a weekday lunch buffet.

Grocers selling African goods

Dino's (460 Notre Dame Ave.): South Asian and Caribbean grocery, with some African spices and staples.

E&E Food Mart (408 Notre Dame Ave.): Not yet open. East African grocery planned for former site of Abyssian Commercial Trade.

Halal Meats & Specialty Foods (206 Maryland St.): Halal butcher with some North and East African staples among shelves stocked with Middle Eastern and South Asian foodstuffs.

Makka Halal (861 Portage Ave.): Halal butcher, with some East African staples.

Selam Grocery (714 Ellice Ave.): Corner grocery with East African staples.

-- Bartley Kives

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 D1


Updated on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 2:50 PM CST: adds links

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