Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Saturday side-trip to Ethiopia

I don't often recommend restaurants. That may be because I don't often go to restaurants. I eat at home most of the time. I cook, which helps keep down expenses. Lately I've been making killer salads from my garden's greens and herbs. Soon we will have broccoli and beans and peas and tomatoes and peppers and all the rest. One must be patient to garden in this high-altitude climate.

Four of us travelled I-25 Street to Nyala Ethiopian Cuisine Saturday evening. I-25 is the longest connector street in the Cheyenne-Fort Collins Metroplex. It carries a flurry of sojourners seeking jobs, education, good food and craft beer. When foodies in Cheyenne eat out, they go to the Morris House Bistro in downtown Cheyenne or any number of places in Fort Collins. We have other places to eat in Cheyenne, but most are chains with predictable fare.

Nyala is located in a nondescript shopette just off South College Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Colorado. It shares a building with an Indian restaurant. If we could teleport this building to Cheyenne, our fair city would double its number of international restaurants with homemade offerings (that doesn't include the ubiquitous Tex-Mex and Americanized Chinese restaurants).

Until teleportation arrives, we have to transport ourselves via Ford to Fort Collins.

The nyala is an Ethiopian ibex. A photo of one hangs in the restaurant entryway. The walls are festooned with fabric hangings representing aspects of Ethiopian culture, such as the coffee ceremony and half-size versions of musical instruments such as the krar, which is cousin to the sitar and guitar. 

We chose traditional seating over the regular American-style tables. We sat in cushioned, bench-like seats, the four of us arrayed around a low-slung circular table. Our food came on a large platter. We used Injera bread for utensils. "No forks" John told us. Annie thought he was kidding, until the food arrived but no forks. We scooped up the lentils and gomen and lamb wot and beef tibs with swipes of our Injera.

Food brings people together. It also provides a glimpse into other cultures. We spoke at length with proprietor and chef Etage Asrat. She moved to Fort Collins in 1991. After taking time out to raise her three daughters and finish her education, she opened her restaurant in 2004. Her daughters now are global citizens like their mom. These days, she's an American (and a Coloradan) with roots and family in Addis Ababa. She will visit her home country this winter. Her family back home helps prepare ingredients for Nyala's cuisine. They are mostly traditional and classic Ethiopian dishes Asrat grew up with.

John is an old Ethiopian hand. He served two tours with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, first in Jima and then in Addis Ababa. "Tours" is usually a military term, but people seem to forget that JFK created the Peace Corps as a civilian counterpart to the Green Berets, which he also authorized. Congressman Richard Nixon, JFK's opponent in the 1960 presidential elections, criticized the program as a "cult of escapism" and "a haven for draft dodgers."

Chris's father, Jack Schweiger, was a U.S. Army supply officer who was tasked with getting goods into the country and to the troops. He often worked with civilian authorities and their supply needs. After all, His Imperial Majesty Halie Selassie, had an understanding with the U.S. He was happy to supply the U.S. with an outpost on the Horn of Africa to blunt the Soviet influence in nearby states. Jack did two tours in Ethiopia (1967-70). He then sent the family back to the states as he was sent to another U.S, client-state, Vietnam. Both Ethiopia and Vietnam would be out of the U.S. orbit by 1975. And Haile Salassie would be dead.

So it goes.

Nyala is part restaurant and part museum. It's worth a visit. It's much closer than Addis Ababa.

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