There is something comforting and simple about eating with your hands: once out of infancy, you can't really get away with having your dinner without cutlery except in very special circumstances (and in very special institutions but if you're not allowed to eat with cutlery, perhaps you shouldn't be allowed on to the internet or access to this site...)
Ethiopian / Eritrean food is hands-on food - the traditional way to eat the savoury stews and vegetables is to have them served on thick pancakes, the staple of the Ethiopian / Eritrean diet, brought to you on a huge platter. Then... you dig in, tearing off bits of the pancakes and scooping up the meat and veg to pop into your mouth. It may not be the most elegant dining experience you could have. It's far from being the most popular ethnic cuisine that London has to offer and it's definitely not the most well-known. But oh, what a surprise to discover it and how very worthwhile trying it.
So: you've found an Ethiopian / Eritrean restaurant. You've been shown to your table and given a menu. The table next to you are sitting around an enormous platter covered in... stuff. What do you do? Read on for the lowdown on what to order and how to eat in an Ethiopian / Eritrean restaurant.
Ethiopian / Eritrean dining is usually a large platter on a low table shared with other people and eaten with your hands. Meat is often rare in Ethiopia and Eritrea so though meat dishes abound on most Ethiopian / Eritrean restaurant menus and are excellent hearty, savoury dishes, there is plenty for vegetarians too with an emphasis on pulses and spinach. For the more cautious and less adventurous diner who attends an Ethiopian / Eritrean restaurant but is not keen to partake of the more traditional fare, be reassured that as former colonies of Italy, most Ethiopian / Eritrean menus will reflect this and will offer Italian pasta dishes such as lasagne and spaghetti bolognese.
How to order goes along these lines: select the dishes and side dishes that you like the sound of. You can assume that it will all come with injera, the thick, spongy pancakes with a slightly sharp taste that form the base of all meals so you don't need to specify that. When your order arrives, a large platter covered in injera should come first and then the different dishes you ordered will follow, to be ladled on to the injera in small mounds. To eat, you and your fellow diners tear off pieces of the the injera and scoop up what you've ordered, popping each morsel into your mouth.
Rather like Indian curries, there are many types of Ethiopian / Eritrean stew and casserole, of which you can choose to have cooked with chicken, lamb, beef or with lentils, chickpeas or vegetables. All dishes and descriptions below are from an Eritrean menu; Ethiopian dishes are the same but may appear under slightly different names (but not so different you couldn't use this guide to order)
Alicha - mild stew
Zigni - spicy stew
Kulwa / qulwa - cubed lamb, beef or chicken fried in spiced butter with onion, chillies and berbere (traditional cooking chilli paste)
Fit-fit - spicy lamb, chicken or vegetarian stew tossed with pieces of fried injera and yoghurt
Wot - hot spicy stew served (when this dish is made with chicken it is traditionally served with boiled egg)
Zil-zil - shredded lamb or beef, marinaded in onions and spices, grilled
Tsebhi - fried meat, vegetables or pulses with fresh tomato and hot pepper
Dullet - chopped liver and tripe (lamb or beef) cooked with spiced butter and chilli
Derho (Eritrean) / Doro (Ethiopian) - chicken
Be'gi (Eritrean) / Yebeg (Ethiopian) - lamb
Siga (Ethiopian) - beef
Alicha Minchet Absh - minced lamb casserole, mild
Zigni Minchet Absh - minced lamb casserole, spicy
Kitfo - finely minced raw beef, heavily seasoned
Gored-Gored - very rare cubed beef mixed with spiced butter and berbere
Goden / Difo Tibs - grilled beef or lamb ribs served with various dipping sauces
Birsen - lentils (can be prepared as Alicha, Zigni or Tsebhi)
Temtemo - spicy lentil side dish
Shiro - chickpeas (can be prepared as Alicha, Zigni or Tsebhi)
Ketcha Fit-Fit - bread marinaded in butter, served with yoghurt
Ajibo Behmilti - spinach with ricotta cheese cooked in spiced butter
Don't forget to order coffee after you meal: you won't get just a cup of bitter filter muck. You can expect a ceremony of starting with beans roasted at your table with the smell wafted at you, then the beans are (sometimes, not always, depending on the restaurant) ground at your table and the coffee served very, very, very fresh to you.
The best Ethiopian / Eritrean restaurants are located in Brixton, in particular the Asmara. Also check out the Tobia Restaurant above the Ethiopia Centre on Finchley Road and the Merkato Restaurant on Caledonian Road for restaurants heading into North London, a few in Shepherds Bush for West London but sadly very few in East London. Enjoy!