Husband and wife Teferi Ayalew and Kassech Tesfaye opened Meskel (199 East Third Street, 212-254-2411) eight years ago in the East Village as an ode to their native country’s cultural and religious practices — Meskel means “cross” in Amharic; the duo are orthodox Christians, and that plays heavily into Ethiopia’s cuisine.
“These are all traditional Ethiopian foods,” says Tesfaye, who is the chef. “We use vegetarian dishes during the fasting time. In Ethiopia we do fasting time, so we don’t eat dairy foods, like egg, milk, butter — it’s vegan food during that time. We eat vegetarian when we’re fasting for religious purposes. Now it’s become more healthy; now Ethiopians eat more vegetarian to be healthy instead of eating meat dishes.”
All of Meskel’s vegetarian dishes are vegan.
If you’ve never had Ethiopian food, the best way to try it here is to sample a bit of everything with Meskel’s vegetarian sampler ($21.75), which features smaller portions of all of Tesfaye’s six vegetarian dishes: gomen (sautéed collard greens), tikil gomen (sautéed cabbage and potatoes), fosolia (sautéed string beans and carrots), miser wat (spicy red lentils), miser alecha (mild yellow lentils), and shero wat (ground chickpeas). The vegetables are served on top of injera, a sponge-like and slightly sour bread made of a mixture of wheat and the grain tef. You’re also given extra pieces of injera, just in case that one isn’t enough (and it isn’t). Traditionally, you’re supposed to eat Ethiopian food with your hands — your right hand, to be exact — using the injera to scoop up the vegetables.
My favorites were the gomen, the tikil gomen, and both lentils, because the textures and tastes were more apparent in those vegetables than in the others. The gomen was sour, its texture slightly like puréed spinach. The cabbage in the tikil gomen was crunchy, the potatoes soft; the dish was mild — it tasted like steamed vegetables. The lentils were the most filling portion (and lentils have a fair amount of protein, which can be a plus for vegetarians). The spicy miser wat played off the mild miser alecha, as peppery bursts preceded earthy reprieve. The injera acts as a neutralizer, and helps to sop up the remaining sauces and puréed vegetables.
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