Rumor has it that there are only three Ethiopian restaurants outside of Ethiopia; the fact is that Washington has four of them. Up to my elbows in injera and watts during a survey of Ethiopian restaurants I spotted two now-familiar Ethiopian dishes on an otherwise Middle Eastern and Italian menu, and discovered that the new owners of the Peasant Basket were Ethiopian, and would prepare an entire Ethiopian dinner for a group on request. More on that later.
First, a little background to prepare you for Ethiopian dining. The food is as unusual as any food you will encounter in Washington; the flavors are unfamiliar, and the style of eating -- tearing off pieces of soured-batter pancakes and scooping up meats and vegetables with them rather than with forks -- unique among local restaurants. At the same time, the menu is so limited (none of the restaurants serves any sort of Ethiopian appetizer or dessert, and the choice of main dishes -- though not their spelling -- is nearly identical at each) that the restaurants are only marginally different from each other.
The mainstay of Ethiopian food is injera, wide pale pancakes made from a batter left to ferment several days. They have approximately the texture of high-quality rubber gloves and the flavor of yogurt in starch form. They serve as tablecloth, plate, knife, fork and spoon; a basket table is covered with them (or a tray if you are dining at an American-style table), and the meat and vegetable dishes are spooned onto the pancakes. More pancakes, folded like napkins, are served each diner to tear into pieces for scooping up the stewy mounds of meat and vegetables. Tear, scoop, eat. Tear, scoop, eat. Pause for a swig of beer or honey wine to quench the fire of berberi, the red pepper paste that is the major seasoning. Repeat. And repeat. That's the whole dinner, unless you end with coffee or tea. The price is so low that you can splurge your change on an ice cream cone on your way home if dessert is a requirement for you.