As Americans who live in a large, coastal city, we take for granted the option of eating a variety of food from other countries: Mexican food one night, Thai the next, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, and so on.
If we have a certain kind of food for dinner one night, we probably do not want, nor do we have to eat, the same type the next. So spoiled are we that we even have the choice of regions, northern Chinese on Friday, southern on Saturday. Such is the luxury of eating out in Seattle, one that seems largely unique to American and other New World cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, and Rio, cities founded on and driven by immigration.
Not that you can't find ethnic variety in old-world capitals (London for example), but in my experience, the variety we take for granted in the U.S. comes with more difficulty in the large cities of other countries. Vienna is not peppered with pho joints; you cannot walk around the corner in Seoul for a burrito; Budapest has a subway and a world-class opera house but it does not have nigiri sushi packaged to go in its grocery stores.
Italian food and Chinese food may proliferate abroad, even if the form is adulterated. But true variety, when it comes to eating out, seems to be more of an American thing.
As much as we might enjoy variety for dinner or lunch, however, we seem less inclined to it for breakfast. Many would think nothing of eating falafel for lunch and sushi for dinner, but breakfast tends to be eaten with stricter margins: eggs, processed grains (muffin, bagel, boxed cereal), dairy (cheese, yogurt), and only certain kinds of meat, preferably fatty, almost always pork, never fish or chicken, unless it is made into sausage.
The Japanese eat grilled salmon, rice and miso soup for breakfast. Soup and noodles, often spicy, are common choices for breakfast in Asia. Few Americans I know can stomach the same for breakfast, as much as they might crave it later in the day.
Breakfast, I believe, is the most intimate of meals, the one we digest minutes out of bed, the meal that resides closest to our hearts and the one we most associate with our very basic memories. We eat it without much decision. It is nourishment in its most simple and personal form.
Perhaps that is why the overwhelming majority of people who visit Seattle'ês numerous Ethiopian restaurants and order foul are African. Americans come for lunch and dinner. Africans come for breakfast. And they usually order foul.
Foul (also spelled fuul or ful and pronounced fool) is the classic breakfast of the Red Sea region, eaten in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, parts of the Middle East, and Ethiopia. Preparation and garnish varies by region, but the basic idea is the same. Foul is mashed up fava beans, topped with egg, occasionally with meat, and served with bread, commonly pita, but here in Seattle with French bread — lots of it.
Foul is about filling up, stretching inexpensive commodities (wheat, beans) into a meal that will keep you going most of the day, something you could serve easily, cheaply and quickly to a large group of working people.
Choosing the restaurant that serves the best foul in Seattle is an impossible determination, and perhaps an unimportant one. It is hard to go wrong when the ingredients are cooking oil, onions, canned beans, egg and cheese. CafÃ© Selam, near 27th Avenue and Cherry Street, serves a popular version, thickly scented with cumin, a common ingredient in foul; the egg is boiled and chopped.
I found my favorite at Ambassal at Jefferson Street and 13th Avenue. The foul here ($6.50) is less redolent of cumin. (Eating CafÃ© Selam'ês version, delicious as it is, almost feels like eating Mexican food.) At Ambassal, the beans are creamy in texture, topped with scrambled egg, diced tomatoes, white cheese and sliced jalapeno peppers, and served with three rolls of crusty French bread.
Tsedalu Kebede opened Ambassal in 2004. Last month, Kebede — her friends all call her Teddy — moved her restaurant one door east, into a bigger space that includes a dining room and lounge.
Kebede studied economics in college, earning a master'ês degree in Leningrad, Russia, before moving to Germany and then Seattle. But unable to communicate fluently in English, her degree went unspent. She worked as a housekeeper before opening the restaurant, where her two youngest kids — her daughter is 15, her son 11 — often do their homework after school.
The kitchen is about the size of a home kitchen with a short counter and one stove. Kebede cooks her foul with kibe, seasoned, clarified butter. There is little to it, she pointed out. Americans she said, rarely order foul.
They love the Ambassal veggie combo ($13.95), the dish she is most proud of: a platter of peas, lentils, and various stews or wot, made from cabbage, carrot, potato, peppers. It is served, of course, with injera, the spongy bread closely associated with Ethiopian cooking.
She does not need to push her foul. Demand for it is reliable and predictable.
'êIf you write something,'ê she said, 'êbe sure to tell them about my veggie combo!'ê
If you go: Ambassal Ethiopian restaurant, 1224 Jefferson St., Seattle. Open 10 am -11 pm Wednesdays- Mondays. Closed Tuesdays.