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CHEAP EATS

Ethiopian spice of life

(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Denise Taylor
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2009
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Incense perfumes Habesha Restaurant as we're seated near the large, dark wood bar that anchors the dimly lighted dining room. The musk scented smoke is so strong that it's dizzying, but soon another more intoxicating aroma takes over.

A large shared platter of Ethiopian stews, spiced meats, and slow-cooked vegetables is set before a group of Ethiopians sitting near us. We greedily inhale the cloud of exotic spices that wafts over as they tear squares of thin injera bread, use it to gracefully pinch bites of food, and pop the mini bundles into their mouths, all while chattering in a pretty, sing-song language that must be Amharic.

With the help of two partners, Abeba Golum opened this Ethiopian restaurant in Malden in December. A native of Addis Ababa, she is a lifelong hobby cook and prefers to create from scratch. Really. She churns her own butter to "keep it Ethiopian style." And her bread - oh, the bread.

Every bite of a traditional Ethiopian meal is eaten not with a fork but with injera bread, a spongy, crepe-thin sourdough bread. So the better the bread, the better the meal, and Golum's injera is superb.

While some Ethiopian restaurants here make do with wheat flour, Golum uses traditional teff, a slightly nutty-tasting grain. She does add a touch of self-rising flour, but the key is that she ferments the dough long enough to develop a pleasing tanginess (a step some restaurants skip). The result is just the right sourness and earthy flavor to liven up every bite of the meal.

Injera is especially good wrapped around beef awaze tibs, chewy but flavor-rich bits of beef glistening in a savory sauce that is red with berbere spice blend (Ethiopia's answer to curry). Doro wat ($10) is also a standout. This chicken stew is so complex you could spend a whole meal trying to guess the many spices that perfume this delicious, intense, brown sauce: nutmeg, cardamom, paprika, clove? And the kifto, steak tartar ($10) drizzled with the house's fresh butter, is pure carnivorous joy.

Other standards like lamb tibs ($10) or chicken tibs ($8) and some of the vegetables are less interesting than versions elsewhere. But, again, the bread elevates them. Every meal should include the vegetarian combo ($12), a rainbow of mild to fiery sides, including addictive fried green beans.

The menu is brief: 11 entrees and a kid's meal. In fact, the drink list, which includes Ethiopian pilsners, stouts, and many wines, is longer. But with injera this good, even one dish would be enough.

HABESHA RESTAURANT

535 Main St., Malden. 781-399-0868, www.habeshadining.com. MasterCard and Visa. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Entrees $8-$14. Kid's meal $6.

Hours Sun noon-11 p.m.; Tues-Thurs 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Liquor Beer and wine.

May we suggest Habesha special (mixed platter), doro wat (chicken), awaze tibs (beef), yebeg tibs (lamb), kifto, vegetarian combo.