Getting my fingers dirty

by Eric Ginsburg | @Eric_Ginsburg

It’s my second time at Taste of Ethiopia, and like my initial trip, Donovan McKnight is right at the front of the restaurant. Last time he was here with friends as a diner, but this time McKnight is the host.

Lit up by bright overhead lights, McKnight is standing with Luck Davidson of Triad Local First and a few others, welcoming attendees to Ethnosh’s fourth event. A scarf swaddling his neck and a formidable beard plunging from his face, McKnight says he’s interested in the event unfolding naturally, with people choosing to sit or stand, and organizers breaking in when it seems right to introduce the restaurant and the blossoming organization he founded.

Ethnosh, a partnership between McKnight’s outfit Face to Face, Triad Local First and Bluezoom Advertising, is just a few months old. It aims to highlight and promote the city’s diverse international populations, kicking off its first event at the popular Pho Hien Vuong before bouncing to DaSaRang Korean restaurant and Jerusalem Market before landing here.

An advance guard collects stories and photos of the selected restaurant in order to preview it for attendees, many of them experiencing the place for the first time. Ethnosh’s website alludes to future expansion into other markets, saying that “Ethnosh was conceived in downtown Greensboro, NC and designed to serve localities around the world.”

The trickle of people in the door quickly morphs into a flood, as eager diners pack Greensboro’s only Ethiopian restaurant. McKnight, Davidson and a few others greet them, taking $5 at the door, the accessible threshold to participate in the buffetstyle dining experience. After allowing a little time for straggling guests and a few sips of beer or honey wine (not included in the cover fee), the event begins.

Lulit Kifle and her husband Elias Ashame, the restaurant’s founders, welcome what feels like 100 people to their venture. With the help of Nahom Tessema, pictured above, they explain what’s on the menu and how the food is supposed to be eaten. Tessema demonstrates how the spongy injera bread lays beneath the different items and how to use pieces of it to scoop up morsels with a cluster of fingers.

After a momentary hesitation, the mass of onlookers does its best to resemble a line, selecting a rolled up piece of injera before moving down the line of lentils, cabbage, two meats, yellow peas and an assortment of vegetarian options.

Besides one course at Greensboro’s recent Pop Up Dinner at Crafted, a vegetable lentil curry served with injera, my previous excursion to Taste of Ethiopia was my first foray into the cuisine. Based on my limited knowledge gleaned from brief internet research, I decided on my first visit it made sense to opt for lamb. I fondly recall the Yebeg Tibs dish, with its gentle jalepeño edge and awaze sauce, so I eagerly accepted the chance to come get my hands dirty again.

The honey wine emits an overly sweet aroma, and while it’s pungent the smell over-promises. Instead, the balanced drink complements the mild spice of the food well without overcompensating.

The packed house tonight largely consists of people venturing outside of their comfort zones, which is exactly what Ethnosh aims to accomplish. Few are diving headlong into the experience as I did on my first trip, electing to use plastic forks rather than the demonstrated custom of using one’s hands. These aren’t foodies, just a broad swath of locals willing to branch out.

They’re easing into the experience, and while the hosts are happy to facilitate it, McKnight jokes privately that they shouldn’t have put the cutlery out as an option.

There’s something for everyone here, including a more familiar salad option. Two women ask if there’s any chance there’s gluten-free injera — the porous bread is normally made from teff flour —and Ashame says indeed there is if the women will wait a minute.

I’m ready to take advantage of the buffet to learn more about what Ethiopian food offers, loading my plate with small mounds of each dish. The different options meld quickly together though, as my imprecise fingers dab at the piles from behind a piece of injera. Bits of food repeatedly wind up in the palm of my hand or on a knuckle, and I unabashedly lick it off.

My fingers end up with a yellow tinge like curry. I’m clearly an amateur, but I don’t mind the telltale evidence of a messy eater trying to do it right. !


Taste of Ethiopia is located at 106 N. Westgate Drive in Greensboro. Call 336.299.6443 for more information.