by Tom Sims
Tom Sims searches the Valley for tips on eating healthy, buying healthy food, growing healthy food, and eating out healthy in the Valley, for this Healthy Eating in the Valley column. Feel free to share your suggestions of places and things to check out!
There are 250 fast days in the Ethiopian Orthodox year. 180 of them are obligatory for all. During the evening meal, all food is free of animal products, and thus, vegan. If that sounds like a drudgery or burden, you have never visited Lucy’s Lair in the Woodward park area.
One can imagine that with that many vegan days on the calendar, Ethiopians might develop some delicious and nutritious foods to share with the world.
One’s imagination would be correct. In fact, out of the austerity of the rituals of fasting has developed a culinary culture that can only be described as something of gourmet quality. The simplicity of its sophistication and the sophistication of its simplicity contribute to a paradoxical explosion of delight to the palate.
This past Sunday, I visited one of the two Ethiopian restaurants in Fresno to experience the taste of Ethiopia myself. Our choice for the day was Lucy’s Lair, partly because another highly recommended choice is closed on Sundays. We will visit there in the future.
Accompanying me to Lucy’s lair was a colleague whose tastes are similar to mine and at least as discriminating. We were not disappointed.
Reviewers on Yelp agree with us. The overall rating there was four and a half stars out of a possible five with ninety-six reviews. On the somewhat more specialized www.vegguide.org, we read three glowing raves.
The praise is universal. Universal praise is unusual. Ordinarily, one at least finds some unfair criticism from the chronically disgruntled to overlook with a snarky or incredulous grin.
I asked our polite, helpful, and engaging young waiter if he was part of the owner’s family and he referred me to his mother in the back. When she made the rounds, I asked if she was Lucy and she kindly introduced herself as Sossena Teklemariam. She smiled at my suggestion that her establishment was named for her.
Lucy, she explained, referred to the common name of AL 288-1, several hundred pieces of bone fossils representing 40 percent of the skeleton of a female of the hominin species Australopithecus Afarensis. Also known as Dinkinesh (“you are marvelous”), she was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson.
In other words, she is purported to be our mother.Now she has her own restaurant in Fresno where we can all partake of Mother’s home cooking.
The vegan menu is most prominent with the staples of lentils, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and berebere as well as injera, a flat spongy bread that you use to pick up your food. (They give you forks in case you need them – but I wanted to go authentic!).
Berebere is a spice mixture whose constituent elements usually include chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek. It is a prominent flavor enhancer in the cuisines of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Injera is made from teff, water, salt, and oil. Teff is a fine grain—about the size of a poppy seed—that comes in a variety of colors, from white and red to dark brown. It grows mostly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and thrives in difficult climates. It is a great source for gluten-free breads and can be eaten whole and steamed, boiled, or baked as a side dish or a main course. Its history can be traced through thousands of years to ancient civilizations of Abyssinia. It has high calcium content and is a source of healthy fiber.
Read more about Teff at this site.
For my lunch, I feasted on Misir Kik Wot, a red lentil dish that was spicy and “meaty.” I also had Tekil Gomen which is a mild mélange of cabbage and potatoes, Fosolia which is also mild and a dish with string beans, carrots, onions, and garlic, and Kik Alitcha, a wonderful split pea dish.
These were served on the same platter with rice and my friend’s Doro Wat, a magnificent looking chicken dish that is reported to be a premier Ethiopian ceremonial dish with exotic spices, vegetables, boiled eggs and salad as well as yogurt. I tasted his sauce and it lived up to comments that I read about it in rave online reviews.
Ethiopian coffee is comparable to expresso, but in my opinion, better. I had three cups.
Even though I could not finish my portions, I saved room for some baklava, the only desert on the menu. It was not the healthiest item being served, but after all that very healthy food, it seemed like a minor indulgence – and a delightful one.
Sossena has been serving her tasty, healthy treats to Fresno for eight years. During the time we were there, the restaurant began to fill with enthusiastic regulars. She made her way to each table, welcomed questions, and greeted everyone warmly.
I asked where she learned her skills and she told me that everything she knew about cooking, she learned from her mother, here in America where she immigrated as a teenager.
Is it healthy?
It is one of the healthiest cuisines in Fresno.
Is it good?
It is so good that, as one speaker I heard said of his mother’s pies, you have to take your shoes off so that you can wiggle your toes.
Will I go back?
I’ll be back as soon as I possibly can.
Should you go?
Yes. You should … and soon!
10063 N Maple Ave
Fresno, California 93730
(Between E Foxhill Dr and E Perrin Ave)
Find them on Facebook.