DCD: Play with your food

Originally Published 04/30/01

April 24, 2001
Maskereem Ethiopian Restaurant
7:20 p.m.

My mother always told me not to eat with my hands or pick at my food. She taught me to sit up straight with my legs crossed and put my napkin in my lap. Lucky for me my mother is in Philadelphia, because all tables manners were thrown out when a friend and I ventured to Maskereem to sample authentic Ethiopian cuisine.

In the middle of finals preparation, sick of studying and with brains almost turned to mush, we decided to skip out on the usual Tuesday night J Street wrap and try something new. In hopes of rejuvenating our poor overworked minds, we boarded the Metro and set off on the Red Line to find a new favorite food.

Maskereem is located on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, a quick walk from the Woodley Park Metro station. It is surrounded by hordes of other types of ethnic restaurants. Indian, Mexican, Italian and Chinese establishments surround the small African eatery. Bars, thrift stores and coffee shops also make up a unique neighborhood for the restaurant.

Maskereem provides a traditional Ethiopian eating experience. The waitresses wear customary Ethiopian dresses and offer three seating options. Diners can either sit in armchairs, chairs that resemble foot stools or on floor cushions. We chose the second option and sat in the miniature-sized chairs. The intricately carved backs of the chairs recline so much that sitting up straight is impossible – sorry, mom.

Each set of chairs at Maskereem surrounds two small tables that are very low to the ground. Wooden tables stand next to basket tables made of a thick straw. The middle of the basket table drops in, making it look like a large bowl. Sitting in a lady-like fashion at these tables is next to impossible. I recommend keeping skirts and dresses at home, because the table arrangement does not allow a young lady to cross her legs at her ankles.

After studying the menu for 15 minutes and failing to recognize much, we took the waitress’s suggestion and ordered one vegetarian sampler, one meat sampler and two waters. The wooden table, we learned, is there to hold drinks because the basket table is not flat enough to keep the evening spill-free.

One piece of advice my parents gave me as a child proved to be very useful while eating at Maskereem: wash your hands before dinner. There are no forks, no knives and no spoons at this restaurant. Just your hands. In lieu of utensils, a rubbery, sponge-like bread is used to scoop up the dishes. The strange texture of the bread is gained by steaming a batter of flour, water and yeast, our waitress informed us.

It is also very important that you do not mind sharing, because all food at the restaurant is served on one large plate in the middle of the basket table.

When the waitress brought out our dinner, we first examined the plate for food we could recognize. We found chicken, beef, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, a hard-boiled egg and two unidentified mushes – one red and one green. All of the foods were tasty and different than anything I had ever eaten before. Even the unidentified mushes were good.

The only problem with the meal was about halfway through my friend and I both began to get tired of eating the bread. We agreed if given a fork we could have finished much more of the dinner.

Instead of mints, at Maskereem handy-wipes accompany the check, which is quite fitting for a restaurant with only finger foods. While we both enjoyed the Ethiopian cuisine, my friend and I decided we both needed a little ice cream from the Baskin Robbins we passed on the way to clean our palates.

We may not have found a new favorite food, but Maskereem was an African eating adventure that provided new atmosphere, tastes and a nice little study break.

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