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Discovering the little-known delights of Ethiopian cuisine

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"What exactly is Ethiopian food?"

I've heard that question from nearly everyone whom I've invited to join me recently for a meal in an Ethiopian restaurant. It seems of all the mysterious ethnic cuisines that Atlantans have come to embrace in recent years, the cooking of East Africa remains the least known.

So here's a quick primer: Ethiopian is one of the more unique cuisines of the world because its mountainous topography kept it isolated not only from other countries in Africa, but from European or Asian oppression. Its prominence as a stopover on the ancient trade routes brought the fragrant spices that are now the cornerstone of Ethiopian cookery (spaghetti and tomato sauce, which you can find on Ethiopian menus locally, is the result of a brief occupation of the country by Mussolini). Heady combinations of chiles, ginger, onions, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, fenugreek and a score of other seasonings flavor tender meat stews and a wide array of vegetarian dishes.

First-timers are always a bit nervous to find Ethiopian fare is eaten without utensils. Morsels of food are scooped up with a spongy, pancake-like bread called injera, made from a tiny grain called teff. I know I'll probably get demerits from Dining Critic Central for saying this, but injera fills me up quickly so I've become less ashamed lately of asking for a fork, if the restaurant has them, to finish my meal.

Following are my four favorite Ethiopian joints in the metro area. Ethiopian restaurants are often community gathering spots, so don't be surprised to find a small stage and sound system set up in one corner of the dining room. The menus tend to be quite similar, but there's something about each of these spots that lend themselves to an enjoyable foray into this unusual, sensual cuisine.

Meskerem

Most Ethiopian restaurants around the city offer combination platters, and the veggie combo platter here -- with two kinds of spiced lentils, collards, green beans and cabbage -- is perhaps the best in Atlanta. Try some tej, the Ethiopian honey wine, and if you're a java lover, ask to partake in Meskerem's coffee ceremony.

2329-B Cheshire Bridge Road. 404-417-0991.

Queen of Sheba

I like to eat here in the area dedicated to traditional Ethiopian tables and stools: Everyone sits around a tall, round wicker basket in which one large plate is placed with all the dishes over a canvas of injera bread. Ordering a meat combo will give you a comprehensive and tasty overview of the beef and lamb dishes. The yemsir wot (spicy red lentils) are particularly good here. Brave initiates should consider the gored gored -- an Ethiopian version of steak tartare tossed in spiced butter.

1594 Woodcliff Drive, Suite G. 404-321-1493.

Sahara

This is a good place for beginners -- the staff is sweet and friendly, they don't mind you using forks and the food is competently prepared, if perhaps a bit mild. At lunch, there's a great buffet for $6.99 that's a wonderful choice for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

3375 Buford Highway, #1050. 404-321-5808.

Shewit Eritrean

The menu at this out-of-the-way spot is a bit different from the others, and the owner is gracious about helping you make selections. Standouts include the shifinfin, a warm salad with bits of injera mixed with tomatoes, peppers and herbs, and the doro wat, chicken legs simmered in a rich, robust chili sauce.

926 Montreal Road, Clarkston. 404-294-8899.

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