As the fireworks display known as Indian cuisine finds a measure of American celebrity, some of us are left to wonder about an equally spice-rich tradition that remains slightly obscure even in a sophisticated international city like San Francisco. The foods I'm referring to are from East Africa from Ethiopia and its northern neighbor (and once unwilling province), Eritrea and maybe the African connection gives us our first clue about their relative obscurity. In my lifetime, most of the food news from Africa has been bad news, beginning with a terrible famine in the West African land of Biafra in the late 1960s to, more recently, a similar crisis in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
Starvation is a chronic threat in modern Africa, and it seems tasteless, somehow, to go out and eat Ethiopian food at a well-provisioned restaurant in a rich city while actual Ethiopians are starving. What would they think of us? What should we think of ourselves? Yet the food is marvelous, and it doesn't seem quite right to ignore it and the people who are trying to make a living by offering it in their restaurants as an awkward gesture of sympathy or solidarity. Our uneasy compromise seems to be to have a certain number of Ethiopian restaurants and to enjoy them, as long as they don't become too high-profile or glossy. When the first bistro opens with a menu of "modern Ethiopian cuisine," we will know the wind is shifting.
Meantime, there are such lovably unaffected places as Club Waziema, which has been dishing up platters of Ethiopian food on Divisadero Street in the Western Addition for nearly 10 years. When they say "club," they're not kidding; the deep space has a sort of sports-bar aura in its streetside quarter but acquires a pool-hall feel (complete with pool table) in its raised rear room. In between, opening off the narrows that connects front and rear, is a cozy nook for two that might be a made-over closet but feels like a spot you'd be delighted to find on a 19th-century railcar.
You'd probably be delighted, too not to mention flabbergasted to find food like Waziema's on any 19th-century railcar. Restaurants cooking spice-charged food are like huge aromatherapy candles, bathing their environs with bewitching scents, and Waziema is no exception. Even out on the street, you can smell it before you see it, and once you're through the door, you're in the zone.
The menu describes dish after dish as "spicy," without saying what those spices are. (Even the Ethiopian lager Harar is spicy.) The best-known of Ethiopian flavoring agents is a paste known as berbere, which often is made from many of the same spices cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek that turn up in the Indian garam masala (known to us as curry powder), along with the softening, sweetening presences of allspice and nutmeg. Then there is mitmita, a cayenne pepper-like powder ground from dried red African chili peppers.
If I was taking a quiz, I would guess that Waziema's lamb stew ($11.50) boneless chunks of meat simmered with garlic, ginger, and spices had some mitmita in it, mostly because of the sauce's red clay color and a distinctive chili, almost Tex-Mex flavor. The menu described the lamb as "mild," but we thought we detected some heat. The beef stew ($10) was similar, with cubes of meat in a rich sauce, except the sauce lacked its sibling's sunrise glow. It looked more like beef burgundy, and in fact berbere paste can include red wine. If cubed meat isn't your thing, you might go for the spicy chicken ($10.50), which features a pair of legs braised on the bone in a golden sauce. (Our server asked us if we wanted the chicken "mild, medium, or hot," with the assurance that "hot isn't that hot." And it wasn't. It was just right, really.)