The dining scene in Vermont, like the state itself, grows more and more diverse. There are still some tastes, though, that can be hard to find in the state. I recently embarked on a “four meals, four continents” journey to sample food that’s made in Vermont but inspired by cuisine from around the world. Rather than hit ubiquitous Italian or Chinese eateries, I sought harder-to-find nationalities. If you’d like to travel to the Caribbean, Switzerland, Nepal or Ethiopia but just don’t have the time or money, this quartet of possibilities gives your taste buds a chance to do some flavorful globe-trotting. Here’s a taste of Africa:
Alganesh Michael ate an egg sandwich and sipped a latte as we chatted over breakfast last week at South End Kitchen in Burlington. That’s more than she would have typically eaten for the first meal of the day in her native Eritrea, where coffee or tea with a slice of bread would be the norm.
The cuisine of Ethiopia, the East African nation that included Eritrea before the latter became a separate country in the 1990s, isn’t growing in popularity because of breakfast. The flavorful main courses served at dinnertime have made Ethiopian cuisine among the most-sought African flavors for American palates.
“We use a lot of spice; it tends to be hot and spicy,” according to Michael. She said the signature meal of the region is doro wot, a traditional chicken dish smothered in sauce and spice and served with boiled egg on a spongy flatbread known as injera. Diners eat with their hands from a shared platter, a communal tendency that tells Americans something about how people live their daily lives in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
“What we are trying to do is let Vermonters know not just the food,” Michael said, “but the culture.”
A year ago she began preparing once-a-month Ethiopian meals at ArtsRiot, the arts, culture and food venue a little farther north from South End Kitchen on Pine Street. She approached South End Kitchen about teaching a monthly Ethiopian-dinner class, and has been doing so since January. Her next class is April 4 and will focus on beef and lamb dishes; her next ArtsRiot dinner happens April 12.
“It’s my passion. I do it for the love of food and cooking,” said Michael, a former nurse who’s the stay-at-home mom of two daughters, ages 14 and 12. “I am not a chef by trade, but I love to cook.”
She also loves to meet and teach people, and said the dinners at ArtsRiot and classes at South End Kitchen give her the chance to do that. She and Mulu Tewelde, a friend and fellow Eritrean in Vermont who helps her, served nearly 200 diners at this month’s ArtsRiot event. “The interest has been so high we had to turn people away,” Michael said. She met 25 students at her more-intimate March 6 class at South End Kitchen.
Michael has found the Vermonters she meets eager and curious about her background and the country she comes from; they ask her numerous questions. “At the same time,” she said, “you’re traveling with them to where the food came from.”
Michael and the food hail from a region along the Red Sea where she grew up as one of nine children. Her father worked at a U.S. Army base in Eritrea, and his boss was from Minnesota. That connection led her older brother, and eventually the rest of her family, to relocate to Minnesota between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. Michael came in the 1980s, and while in Minnesota met her husband-to-be, a doctor who moved with their family to Vermont after taking a job in Burlington.
When she first came to the U.S., Michael struggled to adjust to the culture, the language, the climate and the food. Now, she said, her connection to the food and culture she grew up with is helping her grow in her adopted home.
“What it has given me is confidence,” she said of her sessions at ArtsRiot and South End Kitchen. She’s considering long-range plans to open an Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant.
“I don’t know where this will take me,” she said, “but I will give it a shot.”
If you go:
• ArtsRiot, 400 Pine St., Burlington; 540-0406, www.artsriot.com; South End Kitchen, 716 Pine St., Burlington; 864-0505, www.southendkitchenvt.com; Alganesh Michael’s Ethiopian-dinner sessions, www.facebook.com/BTVethiopian.