I didn’t grow up an adventurous eater. It wasn’t until college and grad school that I began discovering world cuisines beyond Americanized Mexican or Chinese, with the occasional foray into Indian or Japanese food. And my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI isn’t exactly known (or at least wasn’t 10 years ago) as a hotbed of international cuisines. But just as my wife and I were finishing up college, a friend introduced us to a little restaurant just east of downtown called Little Africa. That’s where we first tried Ethiopian food, and it blew us away. Nearly every visit to my hometown includes a stop here to see the owner Loul Negash and enjoy a platter of his vegetarian food. His food is so incredibly rich and flavorful that eating it is almost like revisiting an addiction. I could easily consider Little Africa one of my favorite restaurants of all time.
Saying that sets the bar high, so maybe I should add that hometown restaurants tend to have a special place in my heart. So there’s a comfort factor that other places just can’t replicate. Little Africa is simple and quiet, a single room with a few rows of booths. Ethiopian music (I’m assuming) plays quietly over the speakers. Loul clatters around in the back.
Every meal starts with tea. Loul serves other beverages, but we’ve never gotten them. Why? Because this tea is a delicious, complex, steaming, crack-laden drink of the gods. It’s hot and heavily spiced. We once tried asking him for the recipe, and he quietly deflected the question (understandably). From what we can taste, there are hints of cinnamon, clove, ginger, mint, and everything else that is delicious in this world.
This is perhaps one of the most beautiful sites in the (culinary) world to me: a fresh platter of Little Africa’s vegetarian fare (they only serve vegetarian dishes, although a lot of Ethiopian cooking does involve meat). But just look at it. The colors. The textures. The variety. Different legumes and vegetables and spices. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one of these dishes; we just tell Loul that we’d like the vegetarian platter, and he brings out enough for the number of diners. But I know that there are dishes made with lentils, peas, injera, grape leaves, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets. We’ve had items made with pumpkin, too. Probably my favorite of the bunch is the dark orange/brown pile, just above center. It’s made with shredded injera mixed with a fairly hot spice.
Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands. Before the meal, Loul brings out small plastic bowls with a pinkish liquid: a lightly soapy concoction in which you wash your hands. The food is served on top of a bread called injera, made by fermenting teff flour, a grass that’s indigenous to Ethiopia. Injera is moist and spongy and a little bit sour. You tear off pieces of it and scoop up the food.
Ethiopian food is rich with spices and oils, so by the end of the meal the injera is soaked, which keeps any of the deliciousness from going to waste. I have never not left an empty plate for Loul to clean. I simply can’t. There is always more room in my stomach; my tastebuds are always eager for another a bite. My family still makes fun of me for the one time I polished off the leftovers by rolling the injera into a burrito and downing it. But I stand by my decision.
We’ve had other good Ethiopian food, but nothing has come close to Little Africa. Perhaps, because it was our first foray into the cuisine, it automatically became the standard by which we judge all similar fare. Regardless, this food has such special meaning to us, to the point that I think it has healing properties.
If you want to visit (and trust me, you do):
956 E. Fulton St. SE (map it!)
Grand Rapids, MI 49503