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Taste bud tour needs no passport

Ethiopian cuisine goes big on spices, spongy bread and hearty legumes

Africa has as many cuisines as it does languages, but immigration patterns, accessibility to ingredients and the fancies of the American palate have made Ethiopian food synonymous with African food in the Northwest.

Most of Portland's Ethiopian restaurants have more similarities than differences: extremely friendly staff, optional use of silverware and the round, spongy bread that acts as both plate and side dish. Ethiopian bread has several different names Ñ biddeena, injera and enjera Ñ but they all mean about the same thing. The common denominator is the shape and size (somewhere between a pancake and a tortilla) and the main ingredient, teff, a grain prized for its nutritional content grown in various regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Jarra's

The granddaddy of Ethiopian food in Portland, Jarra's has been open (and popular) for 20 years. The dŽcor is conducive to nighttime dining, with dim lights, red carpeting and long tables that make you feel like you've walked into a foreign beer hall. This air of mystery is a little sexy, and combined with the fact you're about to eat with your fingers, makes for a good date spot.

The menu is divided into a series of combinations Ñ meat, vegetarian and mixed. The veggie menu is the best, built around hearty legumes such as lentils spiced assertively with cayenne, ginger, garlic, curry and cumin, then lightened up by cold salads and cottage cheese. The meat and chicken dishes are unnecessary. The flavors are absorbed better in the vegetarian fare, and too often unwelcome gristle isn't removed from the meat.

The drink menu encourages the expat atmosphere with cocktails such as honey-sweetened mead (to calm the palate) and Jarra's iced tea made with Amaretto and Pimm's.

1435 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-230-8990

Horn of Africa

Tiny and spotlessly clean, this restaurant is actually more like a small market with tables. After ordering lunch or dinner, you can peruse sundries that once may have seemed unusual but will be recognized by yoga enthusiasts and students of anything naturopathic. This is the best place in town to buy ghee, clarified butter that is central to ayurvedic (ancient Indian) medicine and diet.

Start your meal with an appetizer (you won't find them at all Ethiopian restaurants) such as bajiya, patties of ground split peas combined with garbanzo beans and herbs then deep-fried. Instead of serving only biddeena on the side, Horn of Africa also includes a fluffy saffron rice to complement combo plates, which run around $10 and come with meat, mixed vegetables and red lentils.

The boneless curried meats Ñ lamb and chicken stand out Ñ are cooked with plenty of garlic to counter any sweetness. Vegetarian selections hint at North Africa with flavors that bring to mind Lebanese cuisine. Try the fava beans combined with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic and African spices.

Horn of Africa, 3939 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-331-9844

Abol's

If you want to impress a daring eater, try Abol's, where one of Ethiopia's greatest delicacies, steak tartare is served. Richly seasoned with spiced butter and garlic, the ground beef patties are garnished with cottage cheese. A piping hot, flaky whitefish wot (stew) stands up to a sauce seasoned with green pepper, garlic, onion and rosemary.

If you're sharing meals, the vegetarian combination with lentils, greens and fresh salad perfectly complements the fish wot. Our waiter-owner-cook kept asking us if we wanted a little more of anything. I got the feeling he would let us stay in his tiny storefront restaurant all day, eating and eating, only charging us the $8 or $9 per person for the original menu items we ordered. He might have even settled for a hug.

923 N.E. Broadway, 503-281-7961