Conclusive proof that I’m a dork: I stayed up until about 2:00 a.m. a few nights ago, trying to figure out whether Massawa, a popular “Ethiopian” restaurant near Columbia University, is owned by Ethiopians or Eritreans. I’d been told by several Ethiopians and Eritreans (most notably by the owners of Dahlak, a desperately underrated Eritrean restaurant in DC) that the cuisines of the two nations are essentially indistinguishable, other than the languages used: Ethiopians generally speak Amharic, Eritreans speak Tigrinya. So I tried to learn enough Tigrinya and Amharic to read between the lines of Massawa’s menu.
Here’s what I learned: I really should get a television so I can waste time more efficiently. I also learned that Massawa’s food terms are mostly in Tigrinya. So that makes me think that Massawa is owned by Eritreans. (I could have just asked somebody at Massawa, but that would have… um, made sense and saved time.) It sounds like we might have another NYC food closet case: since few Americans have ever heard of Eritrea, Massawa (understandably) encourages people to think of their restaurant as “Ethiopian”.Both Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine is based largely on injera, a spongy, slightly fermented flatbread made from teff, a millet-like grain that is virtually unknown outside of northeastern Africa. A typical meal consists of a large shared platter of injera topped with a variety of meat and vegetable stews; diners use pieces of injera to scoop up the stews. (Nope, no forks here.) We went to Massawa for lunch, and ordered spicy beef tebsi (beef cooked with tomatoes and hot peppers; $8.85 as a lunch special) and a vegetable combo (two lentil dishes, a potato/carrot dish, and collards, $9.50), hoping to sample a decent variety of Massawa’s offerings.
I desperately want to love Massawa. Really. It’s a clean, bright, likable little place, with friendly staff and a cozy, pillow-filled seating area downstairs for large parties. They serve Ethiopian beers (Addis and Harar). And I love Ethiopian/Eritrean food—the aforementioned Dahlak is one of my favorite restaurants in DC, and I wouldn’t mind finding a similarly lovable Eritrean/Ethiopian spot in NYC.
So it pains me to say this… but I really didn’t love the food at Massawa. Everything was bland and pedestrian, unlike any other Ethiopian/Eritrean meal I’ve ever eaten anywhere in the United States. The shiro (pureed lentils) was reasonably tasty, but both the collards and alitcha (potatoes with carrots) were punchless, and the (non-pureed) lentils were simultaneously sweet and bland (vaguely reminiscent of Spaghetti-Os, but less starchy). Even the beef tebsi, the national dish of Eritrea, lacked flavor, despite the fact that we’d requested extra spice. None of the food was bad, but it wasn’t remotely inspiring, either.
But at least the Harar beer was cold and tasty, the prices were reasonable, and the server was lovely. Before we left, I asked her whether the owners were from Ethiopia or Eritrea. She smiled, and just said “the cuisines of the two countries are very similar.” I’ll trust my pathetic Tigrinya skills and call our meal Eritrean… but only because it gives me an excuse to look elsewhere in NYC for a go-to Ethiopian spot.
1239 Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan
Subway: 116-Columbia University (1 train)