It has been a gazillion years since my mother inserted me into a highchair and put bits of food on the metal tray for me to eat with my fingers. I don’t remember it well, but I’ll bet it was a lot of fun although quite messy. Today, for such an experience I have to go to Hawi in downtown Ithaca, where the Ethiopian owner serves food without cutlery as they do in her home country. And it seems to be working: Hawi will celebrate its fifth anniversary at its Cayuga Street location next March 11.
The atmosphere is cheery and if you’ve dined at Dano’s or Les Ducs before, you’ll recognize the table and chair configuration which hasn’t changed. The small bar is now a counter with four stools, and there are African paintings, masks, and tapestries adorning the soft peach colored walls.
Explanation of Ethiopian dining custom: Your selection is delivered atop injera (sour dough pancake) with another dish of rolled injera on the side. You unroll the injera, much like you would a roll of gauze bandage, break off a small piece, and use it to pick up the food and deliver it to your mouth. Depending on what you order, it can get pretty messy, e.g. mashed collard greens, and split peas are much more difficult to deal with than cubed chicken or chunks of lamb. The injera dough can get pretty soggy if you keep using it, so the Ethiopian practice is to eat the injera with what you’ve managed to scoop up, in one bite. Not to worry about running out of injera… you can have as much as you need, at no additional cost, and, in my experience, the servers are cheerful and happy to deliver more injera to the table. I feel compelled to confess that I wasn’t happy with my personal management of the process and took the easy way out: after eating about a third of the portion, I scooped the balance into one of the sealable, washable, plastic recyclable dishes I always bring to restaurants. I thoroughly enjoyed the food the next day when I ate by myself, unobserved, and with my own cutlery.
I’ve learned, from servers, that large vats of stew and sauces are made in advance which makes it impossible to ask for a dish to be mild. However, you can do what I do, which is to ask the server which dishes are already spicy. Here’s a clue: if the dish is described on the menu as Wat, it’s spicy; if you see the word Alicha in the description, it’s mild.
If you’re not familiar with Ethiopian cuisine you might want to select one of the two lunch-time “combinations” ($14). Being a dedicated omnivore, I recommend the “Meat Combo” where you can select any two meat dishes and any three vegetables. If you choose the “Vegetarian Combo,” you’ll be served a mélange of appetizing vegetables: Some of the healthy vegetables normally found in their kitchen include red lentils, split peas, chickpeas, collard greens, beets, carrots, cabbage and potatoes. I believe vegetarians will enjoy Hawi because, instead of the standard boring soups and salads which are often touted by restaurant managers as their vegetarian specials, here you’ll find a half dozen separate, interesting and creative vegetarian entrées at $10.50.
Featured meats are lamb, beef and chicken. Once I ordered Doro Alicha and was disappointed with the portion of two tiny cocktail size chicken drumsticks although the surrounding veggies were perfectly seasoned and cooked. Doro Tibs was a larger portion of chicken with boneless chicken cubed and sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and a few jalapenos. I like lamb and Yebec Alicha is composed of lamb chunks (on the menu it’s described as “stew”) served with the two sides we can choose with every entrée, all in a pleasant, mild sauce with garlic, turmeric and ginger. Another tasty lamb dish is Gomen Besiga which includes small lamb chunks (which occasionally have some gristle) with collard greens and spices. At Hawi, with at least one entrée and two sides, there’s always plenty to eat and if you follow Ethiopian custom, it can be lots of fun.
Tidbits: The restaurant does not currently have a liquor license.
If you feel uncomfortable using the injera as a device to deliver food from plate to mouth, feel free to ask for a fork and don’t feel uncomfortable about it - I’ve learned that about 25-33 percent of Hawi’s customers do just that.