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Ethiopian dinners give a view into another culture

BRISTOL — Organization and focus. Those are the key ingredients for Alganesh Michael — a South Burlington chef who specializes in her native Eritrean and Ethiopian food. Forget carefully measured spices and ingredients, Michael said she “likes to mix things; I don’t like following directions.” She learned how to cook as a teenager from watching her mom and then trying it herself.
“One day it’s good and the next day is OK,” she said with a smile. “I can never depend on it. But maybe I’m highly critical.” Yes. From one day to the next, Michael’s food is authentic and incredible. Taste for yourself at her next meal hosted by Tandem — home to Lauren Gammon’s catering business and Jess Messer’ssoda, jam and pickle company — in Bristol on Saturday, Jan. 21. There will be three sittings: 5, 6:30 and 8 p.m.
Michael and her friend and co-chef Mulu Tewelde first started cooking Ethiopian dinners at Arts Riot in Burlington. They began in February 2014 through Arts Riot’s Collective Kitchen — an idea that brought a rotation of various area chefs to the Arts Riot kitchen to serve guests. Crowds flock to Ethiopian Nights with somewhere between 270-300 people. Just two weeks ago, Michael and Tewelde served their latest meal at Arts Riot; the next dinner there won’t be until April. 
So how exactly do you prepare Ethiopian food for 300 people? “You focus and you stay organized,” Michael said again and again. Oh, and some really big pots.
But the Bristol shin-dig is going to be a more intimate affair. Michael and her two teenage daughters Lydia and Rachel Ambaye, will serve three sittings at Tandem, on Bristol’s Main Street this Saturday. It’s actually the second dinner they’ve served at Tandem; the first was in early December. This Saturday’s meal costs $20 per seat ($10 for kids) and reservations are highly recommended.
The menu (always subject to the chef’s desires) will include: Yemesser Alicha (split orange lentil curry), Gomen (collard greens and kale), Inguday Wet (spicy mushrooms), Doro Wet (spicy chicken), Key Wat (marinated beef), and, of course, Injera ? a handmade, fermented sour dough pancake that carries these five delicious dishes.
The food is served on one platter for two, three or four people. The five dishes will all be served on one injera, with more rolled up on the side. Hint: For those who’ve never eaten food like this before, use the injera to scoop up the food with your hand and shovel it into your mouth, ever so gracefully.
Let’s take a minute to appreciate this unique teff-based pancake. Teff takes several days of soaking before it’s ready to use, so Michael starts the fermentation process before anything else. She adds the other flours a day before she’s ready to make the injera. On production day, she’ll spent six to eight hours baking injera. “I cook one at a time on my special skillet,” said Michael.
So when this large, sour pancake comes piled full of colorful and fragrant foods, smile and thank Michael for her amazing skill and patience.
“We eat communally,” said Michael. “When you sit together and eat, that’s when conversation comes…I’ve met more people doing this in the past three years,” she said, than in anything else she’s done since coming to the United States close to 30 years ago.
By training, Michael is a nurse. She graduated from the University of Minnesota Mankato with a nursing degree in ‘98. Her husband (a physician) got a job at the University of Vermont Medical Center and they moved to South Burlington in 2003. It wasn’t more than a couple years before she met  Tewelde and food became her focus.
Michael has cooked and taught cooking at many places throughout the Champlain Valley. Coming up she’s teaching an Ethiopian cooking class for adults at CVU in mid-February; she’s hoping to solidify plans for more regular Ethiopian dinners in the area.
“For me, it’s fun,” Michael said. “It’s about sharing my food, but the culture too… I’m enjoying the journey.”
To make a reservations for the 5 or 8 p.m. sitting (6:30 p.m. is full), email [email protected]. If all the seats are filled by the time you call, don’t despair. Ask about take-out options.

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