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Selam Ethiopian makes digital dining finger-lickin’ good

All hands on plate

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In an article for the Washingtonian a few years back, food writer Todd Kliman made the claim that while the profile of Ethiopian cuisine had risen, the food itself hadn't exactly evolved; that the cuisine seemed resistant to change; and that the cooking wasn't any different now than it was decades ago. It's a valid claim, but I suppose there's something fitting about the apparent immutability of food from the Horn of Africa and how no one's felt the need to create a ramen tibs or taco wat. Ethiopia, after all, is the cradle of humanity, and ancient ingredients like teff – a grain used to make injera, the spongy, crepe-like flatbread essential to any Ethiopian meal – have been harvested and used as food for millennia, so why delve into po-mo gastronomica now?

At Williamsburg charmer Selam, we employed that dark-hued injera as a serving plate and scooping utensil, driving digits deep into a medley of sautéed meats (tibs) and stews (wats). This is what Ethiopian dining is all about – forgoing metal utensils in favor of getting handsy in a digital communion of sharing. It's a gastronomic love fest, y'all, so go on – get hot and heavy with ye beg tibs ($13.90) teeming with chunks of lamb sautéed with onions, green peppers, tomato and a seasoned clarified butter called niter kibe. The inclusion of tomato, by the way, is more a trait of neighboring Eritrea – specifically, a culinary vestige of its Italian occupation. But tomato or no tomato, it's a rousing preparation, made all the more so with repeated glugs of tej, an intoxicatingly sweet honey mead.

Doro wat ($13.90), perhaps the most famous of Ethiopian dishes, goes beyond the rousing; Selam's version veers into the downright fiery. The stew's thick crimson sauce is given its color by the addition of berbere, a potent powdered spice mix and staple of Ethiopian cooking. Here a chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg are the beneficiaries of this heady dressing, and, no, I couldn't tell you which came first. Hell, I couldn't tell you which we ate first, but I can tell you it's an extraordinary dish nonetheless, and that tearing into the stained injera drenched in a soak of scarlet jus beneath it all is what food dreams are made of.

Then there's kitfo ($14.90), a heap of finely chopped raw beef mixed with niter kibe and collard greens. It's served with a soft, crumbly white cheese, but most notable was the heavy essence of cardamom in the beef that put a slightly odd spin on the dish. It wasn't bad, but cardamom is the last spice you expect to taste when chomping on raw beef.

There was another lamb dish occupying our very large platter, but we couldn't get past the overly dry chunks in the ye sega tibs firfir ($13.90). The utterly gracious servers may have overheard our grousing and offered a berbere-based awaze hot sauce as a lubricant, but it didn't help much. That hot sauce, though – whoa! Even mitmita, a spice powder fashioned from the African bird's-eye chili, was spooned onto our vividly messy platter. Apart from maybe cereal, I could damn well put this powder on anything.

I should add that vegans and vegetarians can have a veritable field day at Selam, with split peas and lentils comprising a majority of the offerings. We opted for dal-like kik alitcha ($9.95) – a remarkably simple dish of cooked split yellow lentils mixed with onions, garlic, ginger and turmeric. Sure, it's as perfect a pairing with injera as it is with an Indian dosa, but I can't help but think it'd go just as well in (gasp!) a taco.