Sometimes you just have to get the real deal. Sometimes you just can't take one more stand-in, substitute, sort-of-like, kinda-similar wheat-free thing. Sometimes, when you get the real deal, it's even better than the wheaty version, and there is a sublime feeling of the pieces of the universe falling in line.
It happened to me the other day at Café Lalibela, the Ethiopian restaurant in Tempe.
I've gone to Café Lalibela many times over the years, before and after my celiac diagnosis. I loved the vegetarian platter, the beautiful mix of dishes, the brown and red lentils, chickpeas, green beans, carrots and potatoes. I loved tearing off pieces of the spongy crepe-like injera (no utensils here) to scoop up bites from the savory mounds spooned like a painter's palette on the injera-lined, oversize platter. I loved the banter around the table as everyone was forced to become more intimate while sharing the one plate of sustenance.
It was a great place to take vegetarians like my sister and my stepbrother, and it was a favorite birthday outing for our office gang.
So I was morose when, after my diagnosis, I asked and found that the injera at Café Lalibela contained wheat.
Traditionally, injera is made from teff, a naturally gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia. It's fermented into a pancake-like batter, then cooked, one-side only, on a large clay plate over a fire. The fermenting gives it a tangy, sourdough-like taste. But Café Lalibela, to compensate for different cooking conditions and, our waiter said, to make the injera more palatable to American taste buds, added wheat.
Because the dishes were served on top of the the injera, I couldn't even share the meal using a utensil. So at the next birthday lunch, I stoically ordered separately and ate my lentils off my own plate, sans injera, with a fork. I don't like to put a damper on a meal because of my eating issues, so I try to never complain and just eat the things that I can. But, I have to say, it really killed the party atmosphere for me.
So you can imagine how I wanted to get out the confetti when I learned that Lalibela now serves a traditional, gluten-free injera.
We went there recently to celebrate my son's birthday, and I practically leapt up to hug the waiter when I ordered the vegetarian platter served with the gluten-free injera. Because my family hasn't sworn off gluten themselves, we also ordered some of the wheaty injera on the side in case they didn't like the gluten-free version.
Here's the thing. My gluten-free version was better. Even the gluten-eaters around the table agreed. It was a beautiful chocolate brown, a much richer looking version than its pale, gluteny stand-in. And it had a strong, tangy bite to it that provided a richer taste experience for the dishes.
So we talked about my son's summer biology course and dipped into the Azifah, the brown lentils with onion, green pepper and spices, and we shared news of our far-flung relatives and scooped up the Shiro Wat, ground peas cooked with red pepper, onion and seasoned with garlic and ginger, and we shared vacation stories over Misr Wat, spicy red lentils, and we jockeyed over the final bites of my favorites, Fosolia, string beans cooked with carrots and onion, and Tikil Gomen, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. And I smiled inside as I used my beautiful brown, real-deal injera, to savor the Yekik Alicha, yellow split peas with tumeric.
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And if you're looking for a great dessert, drive down the road a bit to Paletas Betty, where Betty's got real-deal paletas, just like you get in Mexico. The menu changes daily, and includes traditional flavors like limón, coco, naranja, and nuez. Almost all of them are gluten-free. Just ask, they'll know.
Pieces of the universe. Coming together.