Communities of Cuisine:
2. Urban Life

Wrigley Field pops up on Chicago's West Addison Street in middle of a city neighborhood like a giant that descended a beanstalk, and on game days, pubs and restaurants in the surrounding blocks teem with fans gorging on burgers, fries, sausage, Guinness and Bud, and spilling out onto the sidewalk at all-American places like Palermo's, Irish Oak, Matsuya, El Burrito and Sluggers Sports Bar & Dueling Pianos.

But on an unusually cool Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, during the summer of 2009, there was another game in town. About a mile west on Addison, at Lane Technical High School's stadium, thousands of fans gathered to watch athletes from around the continent play the world's most popular sport, feasting between matches on kitfo, siga tibs, sambussa, kolo and, of course, injera.

For the first time in its 26-year history, the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America chose a Midwestern city to host its annual gathering, where Ethiopians come together for cultural events and soccer matches between teams from the U.S. and Canada. Inside the stadium, two dozen vendors, chosen by lottery, sold homemade-on-the-spot Ethiopian food from their concession booths.

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San Francisco's Ethiopian community seems to have left its heart in Oakland. It's not that the city by the bay doesn't have some good places to get Ethiopian food. There are more than enough, and they offer some intriguing variety. But it's the city across the bay where you'll find an ever larger business community, along with a company that pioneered the sale of Ethiopian food and alcohol in America.

Let's begin in San Francisco, which has at least eight restaurants distributed among its trendier communities. Actually, though, they're not all Ethiopian. Three of them are Eritrean, and three of the ones that are Ethiopian have menus that list their dishes in Tigrinya rather than Amharic. These restaurants' owners come from Ethiopia's northern Tigrinya-speaking cities.

Both Ethiopians and Eritreans say their food is indistinguishable, and you have to press hard to get people of either culture to suggest even the slightest difference. Eritrean dishes may be lighter, with less butter or oil, and a bit less spicy. Or they may not be. It seems to depend upon whom you ask and what mood he's in when you ask him. Iyasu Behre, who owns Red Sea in Oakland with his two brothers, notes that in his native Eritrea, people might eat more vegetable dishes than Ethiopians, and "village to village has different kinds of spices for kibbee . like house spices." But that only proves that cooking, like politics, is local.

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Can something as small as an atom weigh more than an elephant? Yes, it can, but only if it's so packed with matter that its density trumps its dimensions.

That's how to think of Little Ethiopia, a Los Angeles neighborhood that occupies most of the 1000 block of South Fairfax Avenue. What Little Ethiopia lacks in size it makes up for in concentration: You may spend more time there choosing a restaurant for dinner than you'll spend eating the meal once you settle in.

And better yet, Little Ethiopia is so close to the city's outstanding Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is open from noon to 8 p.m. most days, that you can easily walk from the museum and conclude your day of culture with an Ethiopian meal . not that most Los Angelenos ever walk anywhere, except to their cars.

Los Angeles has one of the nation's largest Ethiopian populations, one that began to form as long ago as the 1950s, when Ethiopians went there to attend college and sometimes stayed. In 1969, on a state visit to United States, Emperor Haile Selassie stopped at UCLA and got a special medal of honor from the chancellor. In the minds of Ethiopians, this further established Los Angeles as a welcoming place to live. A few years earlier, nearby Long Beach had briefly hosted the world's first Ethiopian restaurant, the enterprise of the enigmatic Beyene Guililat

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The big city of New York is a small town when it comes to its Ethiopian community.

In a place famous for its Chinatown, Little Italy, Spanish Harlem, Diamond Row and more, there is no cluster of Ethiopians: There are two restaurants in the East and West Village, two near Columbia University, two on the East Side, two in Clinton (née Hell's Kitchen), two between Morningside Heights and Harlem, and two very recently in Brooklyn . in all, 12 restaurants in two boroughs. (Chicago, with half the population, has 10.) If you live in the other three boroughs and you hunger for tibs and t'ej, then it's a bridge-and-tunnel night out.

The city's Ethiopian population is small compared to the size of the city, and there's no Ethiopian neighborhood. "New York is not always a good place to be," says Yeworkwoha "Workye" Ephrem, one of the deans of Ethiopian food in America. "It's tough. Ethiopians use New York as a stepping stone to other places," such as Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, D.C. or Denver.

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©Copyright 2010 by Harry Kloman