Out of Africa
BY ROBERT NADEAU
Generally, Eritrean refugees in Boston have not made a big public show of how their food differs from that of Ethiopia; some even eat in Ethiopian restaurants, despite the longest-running civil war in Africa (one periodically revived since Eritrean independence in 1995). The dishes are rather similar, as is the general style of eating by hand, enfolding bits of spicy stew in torn-off sections of a large sourdough pancake. Greater Boston has had at least one Eritrean restaurant for a while, the Asmara in Cambridge. But if you’ve enjoyed Ethiopian food in the past, you may particularly like the food served at Sagla, the project of a cooperative of Eritrean-American women organized by Cooperative Economics for Women (CEW). It seems a little more home-style and more obviously intended for the immigrant community, than, say, the much fancier Addis Red Sea in the South End.
For a place that serves such exotic fare, this restaurant and catering cooperative is about as plain a luncheonette as you’ll find. The building was “The Boston Jerk Center” for a while, and has formica tables and booths. On the walls hang a couple of framed prints, one a view of the capital of Eritrea, Asmara. There are some Eritrean newspapers and magazines on a counter in front. And that’s about it. If you didn’t see the blue awning outside, you drove right by it.
Contrary to the usual immigrant-restaurant practice, Sagla’s kitchen can usually come up with most of the paper menu, but less than half of the white-board menu over the counter. That said, you may still have to negotiate some changes in your initial selections. My strong suggestion is to lean toward the spicy items, which aren’t incredibly spicy — between one and two chili silhouettes on the average Thai menu. The spicing is quite complex, and seems to vary from one stew to the next. “Mild” dishes sometimes also have a little spice, and likewise rely on certain onion flavors unique to the Horn of Africa.
Probably my favorite item on four visits was bursn (just say “spicy lentils” and point to it under “Vegetarian Entrées”). For $8.50 as a dinner ($7 à la carte), you get a vast tray of injera (sourdough pancakes) and a fine mound of red-colored lentils with a complex flavor somewhere between real Texas chili (using cumin) and a North Indian curry (using caramelized onions and cardamom). You also get two side dishes from a list of 10 ($3 as extras), of which I am able to report on eight. The musts are collard greens, always delectable though they ranged from a crunchy style with onions to the overcooked, African-American “greens” style; beef fitfit, for which leftover injera is soaked in leftover spicy beef gravy; cabbage, done with turmeric so it looks curried but just tastes buttery-good; and again, those spicy lentils. I also liked “mild lentils,” which were creamy orange and had a bit of spice in the aftertaste, and vegetarian fitfit, which substituted green lentils for the injera and mixed in carrots and cauliflower. The only side dish I wouldn’t repeat was the mild rice, which just wasn’t special. If you feel like a vegetable curry, the ahmiltee throws together potatoes, green beans, carrots, and tomato with a zesty spice somewhat like curry.
Another brilliant dish is kulwassa, or spicy fish ($10.95), made with chunks of salmon (although the menu says codfish). Today’s fat farmed salmon responds well to spices — here, a red curry with red onions, red pepper, and tomato. T’zebhi dorho ($8.75) is the same kind of spicy chicken you’ve seen as doro wat in Ethiopian restaurants, minus the boiled egg. The portion is a leg and thigh, and spicing features caramelized onion, red pepper, and some ginger. The ginger is more pronounced in the semi-spicy roast dorho ($8.75), which is more like a yellow curry with vegetables.
Both lamb dishes ($8.95) are served with tomato sauce. The lamb is lean and cut into small cubes, making it one of the easier stews to handle with the injera. Spicy beef ($8.75) is in the red-chili-curry mode, but even mild beef ($8.75) has a slight ginger kick. Similarly flavored eggs, breads, and cereal make up a Saturday/Sunday brunch. Sagla has American soft drinks and Eritrean coffee ($1.35), which seems to be ordinary dark roast, probably grown in Eritrea. The only dessert in stock on my visits was a slice of pound cake ($2).
I should say that Sagla has really excellent injera. On one visit it was brownish, and may have been made with teff, the highland Ethiopian grain that is preferable for this bread. Three more times the injera was made with wheat flour, but nicely soured, bubbly and yet tough enough for the task. (I should also warn you that injera can be deceptively filling, so finish your collards for the fiber.)
Service is rudimentary but pleasant and helpful. Food comes on a large tray of injera, and groups are asked if they want to be served separately or together. Together, which means a larger tray with many different mounds, is the traditional service. So far the customers have been a mix of curious gringos and Eritrean men, who evidently don’t cook for themselves.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe he’s hard on restaurants because he eats better at home. You can taste for yourself in his new cookbook, The American Ethnic Cookbook for Students, by Mark H. Zanger (the name Nadeau uses when eating real food), published by Oryx Press. This is the only cookbook with a profile and two to six verbatim recipes from 122 ethnic groups and Indian nations in the US. You can check out a sample chapter and some new discoveries online at www.ethnicook.com. Or get one autographed for your mom at the publication party on May 13 (Mother’s Day), 2 to 4 p.m. at Jamaicaway Books, 676 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain. Bring your mom; there might even be refreshments!Issue Date: May 3-10, 2001