Ethiopian Vegan

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The vegan sampler at Ras Plant Based features an assortment of dishes traditionally eaten by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians during periods of religious fasting, when they abstain from animal products.Photograph by Bubi Canal for The New Yorker

Always ready to learn more about Ethiopia’s contributions to the world. And the move to animal-free food is an evergreen topic around here. So the story below is perfect for today. The photography is unusual, in the world of food, but the text by Hannah Goldfield is convincing:

Ethiopian Tradition for the Vegan-Curious, at Ras Plant Based

At Romeo and Milka Regalli’s Crown Heights restaurant, vegan proteins stand in for meats, and tangy, fermented injera soaks up sauces spiked with traditional berbere spice or puckery lime.

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Romeo and Milka Regalli, who describe themselves as passionate about vegetables, wanted to both showcase their favorite fasting dishes and offer vegan iterations of common meat preparations.Photograph by Bubi Canal for The New Yorker

Many of the recipes that the chef Romeo Regalli uses in the kitchen at Ras Plant Based—the restaurant that he and his wife, Milka, opened in Crown Heights in March—have been passed down through generations. A number of them came from Romeo’s grandmother, a passionate home cook who died last year, in Ethiopia, at the age of a hundred and four. Yet the dish that seems most likely to have a long, storied history, Mama’s Tofu, traces its origins only as far back as May, when Romeo’s mother texted, from Addis Ababa, a photo of what she had made for dinner.

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An avocado salad with diced tomato, onion, and jalapeño, in a lime vinaigrette.Photograph by Bubi Canal for The New Yorker

“I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, that looks so good!’ ” Romeo recalled the other day. She rattled off the ingredients: tofu, tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños. After she mailed him a batch of her homemade spice mix (the exact contents of which he keeps tight to his chest), Romeo made an approximation, and promptly added it to the menu.

 The story behind Mama’s Tofu reflects the restaurant’s ethos: dynamic, adaptable, rooted in but by no means bound by tradition. Romeo and Milka, who were both born in Ethiopia, met while working at Milka’s mother’s Ethiopian restaurant, Awash, on the Upper West Side, and had long wanted to open a place of their own, with a vegan menu. Although meat figures prominently in Ethiopian cuisine, vegan dishes are common, too; for more than a hundred and fifty days a year, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians abstain from animal products, in accordance with religious fasting. The couple wanted to both feature their favorite fasting dishes and rejigger typical meat preparations with substitutes like crumbled pea protein, to “cater to those who are trying to transition to a vegan life style,” Romeo explained.

Ras Plant Based was up and running for all of a week before the pandemic forced the Regallis to close the dining room they had worked so hard to get ready, commissioning colorful murals and arranging patio-style furniture for a breezy al-fresco vibe. Cutting back on staff and shifting to takeout meant paring down the menu and reducing their hours. They have recently added limited outdoor seating, but a playful brunch menu, offering cauliflower wings and waffles and Ethiopian breakfast classics, remains on hold for now.

Even in an abridged form, Ras is an exciting addition to Franklin Avenue’s ever-bustling restaurant row. Flaky sambusas (the Ethiopian equivalent to what’s called a samosa in South Asia and elsewhere), stuffed with either lentils or chopped cabbage, onion, and bell pepper, come two per order. As soon as their slightly honeyed, deep-fried scent hit my nose the other night, I knew that I should have added at least a half-dozen to my takeout cart; that thought was confirmed after I dipped them into Ras’s glossy-red awaze, a saucy paste usually made with berbere (Ethiopia’s national spice mix, which includes chili pepper, ginger, basil, and fenugreek) that here releases a balanced, slow-building heat…

Read the whole story here.

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