My husband and I sit across from one another at the Blue Nile in Kansas City, Missouri, staring down the coffee-making contraption on the table between us. I’ve made coffee in a French press, an Italian moka pot and of course a standard American auto-drip, but this traditional Ethiopian coffee service is something new. It looks like a jumble of gear from a high-school science lab, a flimsy stack of glass orbs, beakers and tubes over a gas flame with coffee brewing inside.
After 10 minutes of simmering and hissing and bubbling up through the device, the coffee whooshes back down, and our server pours us each an espresso-size cup. Very black, very smooth and very, very hot. Heaven.
When I was a kid growing up in small-town Kentucky, my parents traveled to Washington, D.C., and came home talking about a meal at an Ethiopian restaurant. Two details captivated my imagination—sitting on the floor to eat and sharing food from a communal platter—but I didn’t have the chance to try Ethiopian food myself until this trip to Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood, where international food vendors and restaurants crowd City Market. You don’t sit on the floor at Blue Nile, and if you want to eat off your own plate, no one will judge you, but I do spot native Ethiopians at a few tables, a sure sign that the food is good.
With our coffee, we eat freshly fried sambusas, pastry turnovers filled with spicy beef that steam when we bite into them. Next we share the vegetarian sampler, a colorful pinwheel of perfectly spiced stews on a huge round platter: garbanzo "meatballs" in a sweet tomato sauce, garlicky green beans and carrots, yellow lentils, gingery collard greens and more. A dish of ingerra, a sour, spongy, tortillalike bread, accompanies every order. You just tear off pieces and use them to scoop up the food. Although our waiter assures us we can eat with silverware if we want, his T-shirt bears a fork and knife with a giant X through them, so we dig in hands-first. When in Ethiopia, right?