ETHIOPIAN EATS. Will they be America's newest ethnic food fad? FOOD FROM THE DARK CONTINENT

UNLIKE pita, tortillas, or chapati, the cornerstone of Ethiopian cuisine - called injera - is a giant flat bread with a delicate tang. The most dramatic feature of injera is that it replaces eating utensils. You tear the flexible white bread into pieces to scoop up food instead of using knife, fork, and spoon.

``There are many breads in our cooking, but the injera is the most important one, and it is always used in eating the main course,'' says Nega Mesfin, of Boston's Ethiopian Restaurant.

Authentic injera is made with an Ethiopian grain called teff, and each bread is very thin and large - about two feet in diameter. In America, a nine- or 10-inch skillet often replaces the ceramic Ethiopian injera pot and produces a bread about the size of a dinner plate.

THE national dish of Ethiopia, a spicy stew called a wat, is served on a circle of bread and eaten with pieces of injera. Ethiopian cookbooks also include recipes for lamb, raw or cooked beef, fish, and many excellent vegetarian dishes as well. Goat is often found in this cuisine, but not pork.

Collard greens is a typical vegetable, as are green peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots. These are often cooked with garlic, ginger, and the inevitable fresh, hot chilies.

Only a few Ethiopian restaurants exist in the United States. There are even fewer Ethiopian cookbooks written in English, and the flour for injera has been almost impossible to find until recently. A mixture of other grains is sometimes used as a substitute for teff.

Mr. Mesfin says he uses a mixture of wheat and rye or plain white flour, as well as some teff. He says some customers are not accustomed to the fermented, slightly sour flavor of authentic injera. And he adds that there are mild dishes called alechas.

Mesfin's restaurant is similar to Ethiopian restaurants in Washington, Chicago, and Seattle in that it is operated by several family members. Teen-agers Mamie (pronounced ``Mah-mee'') and Betty both cook injera as well as other dishes in their father's restaurant.

When Mamie makes injera, she turns out dozens of perfect ``cakes'' (30 or 40 or more) as easily as an American chef would flip pancakes. Each cooked cake is tossed out on a soft cloth to cool. Later she stacks them in a pile and sometimes freezes them, covered with a moist cloth and wrapped in plastic.

For serving, the cakes are either folded in half, then folded again, or rolled into a thin tube. Mamie explained that four injeras are served to each customer - one as a plate on which the food is placed, and three others rolled or folded around the edge to be used to scoop up food.

`THE Ethiopian culture has an age-old tradition of communal eating, with meals served on a common platter,'' says Mesfin. ``A familiar gesture of Ethiopian hospitality and etiquette is for a hostess to take a piece of injera, wrap it around a choice piece of food, and put it into the guest's mouth.''

Although not trained as a chef, Mesfin is schooled in Ethiopian history and culture. His brother Daniel Jote Mesfin has written a book on Ethiopian cooking.

``My field is social anthropology and psychology, but I am into cooking right now,'' he says. As I talk with her father, Mamie is preparing chicken for an alicha, a gentler alternative stew to the very hot berber'e.

``Cooking is very individual, and it is done by instinct,'' says Mesfin. ``No two women, even mother and daughter, cook the same dish exactly the same way. The great challenge in cooking Ethiopian food is to be creative with recipes that have been around for millennia.''

HE explains that he adheres to three traditional basics of Ethiopian cooking. One is the use of red onions that have cooked for many hours until brown, without adding any oil or butter. Another is the use of only purified butter, often made spicy by the addition of garlic and six or more spices. The last basic is the fiercely spicy red berber'e sauce, which is made of red peppers and a variety of ingredients. It's a seasoning used in most everything, from a rich man's dish to a poor man's piece of bread.

While using these basics, like many other cooks, Mesfin adds his own creative touch by a subtle change of seasonings to his own taste.

Injera is tricky to make unless the cook is experienced at handling yeasts. Although teff has a natural yeast of its own, some cooks need the assurance of a sourdough starter or a commercial yeast for the right texture. Pure water must be used since the additives in tap water destroy teff's yeast.

Rebecca Theurer Wood, editor of East West magazine and author of ``Quinoa: The Supergrain,'' has developed many recipes using teff, such as muffins, cakes, cookies, banana bread, and various stews. Her recipe for injera yields a bread free of oil, eggs, milk, and wheat. It's not only fine for Ethiopian foods, but also for most any stew-like American favorite, such as chilies and curried dishes.

Here is a recipe for injera that was developed by Rebecca Wood:

Injera - American Style 1 cup teff flour (white, red, or brown) 2 cups spring or boiled water 1/8 teaspoon sea salt

Mix teff flour and water. Loosely cover, and set out at room temperature to ferment for 12 to 24 hours. In hot, muggy weather decrease fermentation time. In cold weather increase. Liquid will rise to the surface.

Over medium heat, warm a 9-inch cr^epe pan or skillet with tight-fitting lid. Pour off any surface water from batter and stir in salt. Oil pan evenly, and pour on 1/2 cup batter. Rotate pan to distribute batter evenly.

Cover. Cook about 3 minutes, or until surface is covered with tiny holes and is dry. Remove from pan. Serve hot or cold. Makes two 9-inch breads.

This recipe was developed by Ms. Wood using the Ethiopian flour, teff, and adapting it to an American favorite - chocolate cake.

Great Chocolate Cake 2 1/4 cups brown teff flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups natural sugar 1/2 cup unsalted butter 2 eggs, slightly beaten 1 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 ounces chocolate, melted and cooled

Icing and filling 1 1/2 cups any chocolate icing 3/4 cup raspberry jam 2 cups almond slices

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift together flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, and salt. Cream sugar and butter together until fluffy.

Combine eggs, milk, and vanilla. Stir into sugar mixture. Gently stir into dry ingredients. Pour into 2 oiled and floured 8-inch round cake pans.

Bake 25 minutes. Cool on racks 5 minutes. Remove from pan and cool until heat is gone.

Place one cake layer on a plate. Spread with raspberry jam. Position other layer, top side up, on jam-covered layer. Spread with chocolate icing.

Press almond slices into sides of cake.

The following recipe for lentil salad has been adapted from Time-Life's ``Foods of the World: Africa.''

Lentil Salad with Chilies (Yemiser Salata) 1 1/2 cups (1/2 pound) lentils 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar 1/2 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper 6 large shallots, peeled, halved 2 fresh hot chilies, about 3 inches long

Wash lentils and add to boiling salted water, enough to cover 3 to 4 inches. Simmer over low heat, partly covered, about 25 minutes until tender, but still firm.

Drain, rinse under cold water, and drain again.

Remove seeds and stems from peppers and cut into strips about 1 inch by 1/4 inch.

With a whisk, beat together the oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Add lentils, shallots, and chilies. Toss gently until well mixed. Taste for seasoning, and marinate at room temperature at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve warm or chill. Makes 3 to 4 cups of salad. Mild Minced Chicken Stew (Yedoro Minchet Abish, Alicha) 1 medium chicken, boned, minced 2 cups red onions, chopped 1 cup spiced butter (recipe follows) Salt to taste 1/4 teaspoon ginger, minced 2 cups water 1/4 teaspoon garlic, minced 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 teaspoon ground car damom

Cook onions over medium heat until soft, but do not burn.

Add butter, salt. Cook 20 minutes, then add ginger and 1/2 cup water. Cook gently for 10 minutes. Add remaining 11/2 cup water and spices.

Cook, stirring gently, another 15 minutes or until water evaporates and stew is thick.

Makes 6 servings. Serve hot with injera or bread.

Spiced Butter is a basic ingredient in the preparation of authentic Ethiopian dishes and is used to prepare all dishes requiring butter.

Spiced Butter 2 pounds butter 1 small onion, peeled, chopped 3 tablespoons garlic, finely chopped 2 tablespoons ginger, finely chopped 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek 1/2 teaspoon cumin 1/2 teaspoon dried basil 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Chop onion, garlic, and ginger and set aside.

In a heavy, 4- to 5-quart saucepan, melt butter over low heat, stirring, without letting it brown. Then increase heat slightly and bring to a boil.

When covered with white foam, stir in all the spices.

Reduce heat to very low and simmer, undisturbed, 45 minutes - or until milk solids on the bottom of pan are golden brown, and butter on top is transparent.

Slowly strain through a fine sieve or 4 layers of dampened cheesecloth. Discard seasonings. Strain again if necessary to clear.

Pour into a jar, cover tightly, and store in refrigerator or at room temperature. It will solidify when cold. Use as needed.

It can be safely kept, even at room temperature, for two or three months.

Red, brown, and white teff, and teff flour are available from Wayne Carlson at approximately $1.40 a pound wholesale for orders over 50 pounds, and $2 a pound for smaller orders. Contact Maskal Teff, 1318 Willow St., Caldwell, ID 83605; (208) 454-3330.

Books on Ethiopian cooking: ``Exotic Ethiopian Cooking,'' by Daniel J. Mesfin (Ethiopian Cookbook Enterprise, Falls Church, VA $14.95, paper) and ``Foods of the World - Africa'' (Time-Life, New York, 1969).

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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