Food for the Urban Human
Abay Prepares the Lightest Ethiopian Dishes in Town
Let's begin this review with some commentary about the food at Abay Ethiopian Cuisine. Readers familiar with my work will know that I almost never start a review in this way, preferring instead to spend the first few paragraphs discussing some aspect of a restaurant's architecture, or some piece of cultural history related to the cuisine in question, or pointing out once again the social, political, and environmental disaster that is neoliberalism (a market-oriented ideology). But this time around, I have to get down to the food right away, because it's that good.
The dish to order at Abay is the veggie combo ($13, and it easily feeds two people). It has eight offerings on a giant plate, the stars of which are: spinach shaped like an upside-down bowl; the diced tomatoes, red onions, jalapeños, and injera sheened by lemon juice; carrots and string beans sautéed to the perfect state of no longer being crunchy, but not floppy, either; and spicy cabbage and carrots that are, again, in the state of being neither crunchy nor soft.
The meat plate ($16) is also excellent (I will always love the whole hard-boiled egg in the chicken stew—the center of a meat plate's universe), but it is not as outstanding as the veggie plate, which strives for something that seems almost impossible to achieve with Ethiopian dishes: a certain lightness. This is my theory (which has not been tested): The thick stews and brown folds of injera that dominate the Ethiopian cuisine were essentially foods for farmers, foods to fill a starved tummy after a long day in the sun with the plows and the cows. But when the heavy foods of the country moved to the city, they encountered a different kind of human, a human whose life was much, much lighter: She/he sat at a desk all day, traveled by car or bus or minibus to and from work, and at home spent a good amount of time in front of the telly. There was no sweat, no massive animals to whip, and no stomachs totally emptied by toil. The food at Abay is for this urban human.
And what is it exactly that distinguishes an urban stomach from a rural one? The urban one doesn't like to be stuffed silly. It wants breathing room and a relaxed (and if possible, unnoticed) digestion process. The nightmare picture for the urban stomach is the python digesting some huge mammal. The snake just sits there doing nothing but slowly digesting/grinding its catch. The whole snake becomes its stomach. There are times when I have eaten Ethiopian food and felt just like that python and collapsed into a food coma.
The owner of Abay, Tesfaye Haile Selassie, told me that his wife, Blen Teklu, who is the restaurant's cook, is very health conscious. She tries to use the freshest and best vegetables (red onions over white ones, for example), and cooks with olive oil (the hero of the heart-friendly Mediterranean diet). When I tried to press him for information about how she prepares the injera rolls with the layers of lean ground beef (an appetizer, $6.50), or the wonderfully precise string beans ("Everyone loves those," he said, "it's called 'fasolia'"), Selassie told me straight that he has to keep the doings of his kitchen a secret. Apparently, the competition in the local Ethiopian restaurant market has become so fierce that survival depends on distinction from the rest. Selassie wants Abay to be recognized as innovative ("We offer single plates for those who do not want to share a big plate—no other Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle offers that") and sophisticated ("We don't just buy things because they are cheap, but because they taste good").
The restaurant itself, which was once occupied by Skelly and the Bean, matches the mode of the food: urban and elegantly furnished, but not without its African touch—the unusually colorful (red, yellow, green, blue) shelves behind the bar. The best place to sit in Abay is at the table by the huge windows that view the sidewalk, the pedestrians, the pizza place, the traffic heading up and down 10th, the quiet road heading up to Seattle Prep, the trees, the gardens, the apartment buildings. Indeed, on the day I dined at Abay, I saw a young woman leave her apartment in her pajamas, cross the street, place a letter in the mailbox, and return to her apartment: the light life of a city being.