Thursday, February 27, 2014

Massawa: Touch, Taste, and ENJOY!

By Benjamin Ramos Rosado, 

There’s nothing more primal and satisfying than eating with your hands.  Many will try to convince you that it’s unsanitary and uncivilized, but what they fail to realize is that this ancient and widely practiced method of eating creates a uniquely intimate bond with your food.   Inspired by an article I read (“Eating with your hands is healthier” by Stasia Bliss published on, I decided to visit to one of my favorite African restaurants in the city, Massawa, where eating with your hands is all the rage.

New York City is full of Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants, but few have the authenticity and allure of Harlem’s Massawa.  Small wooden tables, a fully stocked bar, beautiful East African art, and soft lighting, make Massawa a warm and cozy place to enjoy dinner with family or friends.  It was the perfect setting to put what I learned from the article to the test. 

As I re-read the article, I asked my server if he thought eating with your hands was healthier than using utensils; he vehemently agreed!  Having been raised in rural Eritrea, eating with his hands was the norm.  He said this method of eating makes you acutely aware of your hygiene (you always wash your hands before and after a meal); it helps you get a tactile sense of your food (you don’t eat what feels too hard or slimy); and it helps you digest better, because you enjoy the experience.  He thought the topic was interesting and asked one his fellow servers to join the conversation.  Massawa’s servers are always friendly, helpful, and attentive.

It was a cold night, so I decided to start dinner with a cup of Massawa’s Special spice tea. Made from cinnamon, cardamom, and clover, this tea’s an Eritrean staple.  Usually you drink it after a meal, but I needed to get the chill out of my bones. It was absolutely delicious; the flavor of each of those earthy and rich spices came across brilliantly.  When I added half a packet of Splenda to the tea, the hint of sweetness made it all the more incredible. 

Feeling warm and hungry, I looked over the appetizers (!menu) and was torn between the Beef Sambusa (Four pastry shells filled with ground beef flavored with spices) and the Vegetable Sambusa (Four pastry shells stuffed with a variety of vegetables).  I ordered the Vegetable Sambusa, because it would be healthier and not too filling.

According to the article, when you touch your food before eating it the millions of nerve endings on your fingertips send information immediately to the stomach; this stimulates the stomach to produce the enzymes needed for digestion.  Keeping this in mind, I decided to feel the sambusa before eating it.  It was warm, flaky and soft; I was happy to notice that, for a fried appetizer, it wasn’t greasy.  I couldn’t tell if my stomach was producing digestive enzymes or not, but my salivating mouth was prompting me to eat.

The sambusa was simple and delicious.  It contained diced carrots, spinach and potatoes and was paired with two dipping sauces. One was a vinegar, green pepper and garlic mix and the other was Azawe, an Ethiopian/Eritrean marinade made with berbere, oil, and water or Tej (an Ethiopian honey wine).  The vinegar mixture added a wonderful hint of acid and crunchy texture to the appetizer; the Awaze was spicy, yet subtle and had an interesting earthy flavor as well. 

Having sufficiently stimulated my appetite, it was time for the main event!  Massawa’s entrée menu is divided into 6 sections (See the menu:!menu2).  Usually, I order Lamb or Beef, but I decided to break with convention and ordered seafood.  The Monkfish (Tenderly and slowly simmered with rosemary, lime, garlic and black peppers), Shrimp Tebsi (Shrimp delicately sautéed with tomatoes, peppers, onions and berbere) and Shrimp Hiwas (shrimp sautéed with collard greens or cabbage) were all tantalizing in their own way, but I decided to order the Shrimp Combo, which combined elements of the Tebsi and Hiwa. 

The Shrimp combo was served with a small side of salad (lettuce and shredded carrots dressed with oil), pureed chickpeas, spicy shrimp (sautéed with onions and berbere), and mild shrimp (sautéed with tomatoes, and cabbage). The entrée also came with a side of Injera, a traditional Ethiopian/Eritrean flatbread made of Teff, a calcium rich grain.  It’s used to scoop up food and to sop up sauces. Injera is soft, moist and spongy to the touch.  It also has an elastic quality to it, but becomes firmer as it cools.  It tastes a bit sour, but is mostly bland.

As I looked over my entrée, I kept in mind one of the article’s most important points: Eating with your hands engages all your senses and keeps you “present” while you eat, this means you become aware of portion size and the quantity of the food you’re consuming. 

Impatiently, I tore off a piece of injera and scooped up some salad; it was light, crunchy and refreshing.  I could’ve eaten the entire portion in a few scoops, but decided to parcel it out throughout the meal. I knew the crunchy salad would add some texture to the rest of the meal.

The aroma of the spicy shrimp was too delicious to ignore, so I scooped some up with my bread and paired it with the pureed chickpeas.  It wasn’t easy to scoop the puree into the injera and shrimp, so instead I soaked the bread and shrimp into the puree. The chickpeas were well seasoned and provided a rich earthy taste to the combo.  The shrimp was delicious and intense, but the chickpeas and injera muted the flavor and made it easier to eat. The combined flavors of the injera, shrimp and chickpeas were balanced and complementary.

The mild shrimp was also good, but a bit bland on its own.  When it was combined with the acidic sweetness of the tomatoes, crunchy cooked cabbage and the side salad, it became delicious.

As I ate, I noticed I was eating slower and was judicious about portion size.  I wasn’t trying to race through the meal; instead I was savoring each bite and meticulously preparing each scoop of injera.  This type of focus isn’t present when we use utensils.  We use them as shovels to heave large forkfuls or spoonfuls down our throats so we can finish as soon as possible.  I felt very “present” and ate enough to satiate my hunger; I even had leftovers for lunch the next day.

After dinner, my server asked me if I wanted to order dessert, I declined, but reviewed the dessert menu nonetheless. Massawa’s menu features the standard dessert fare such as Tiramisu, Cheesecake and Rum cake.

To be honest, I can’t prove that eating with your hands is healthier than using utensils, but I can tell you that my dining experience was different and a lot more interesting.  I did feel an intimate connection to my food and was more aware of portion sizes.  Maybe, it was the power of suggestion or maybe not, who knows?  The one thing I am certain of is that the food at Massawa is wonderful! So put down the silverware, wash your hands and go taste for yourself! ¡Buen provecho! 


1239 Amsterdam Ave

New York, NY 10027

(212) 663-0505


HOURS: Daily: 11:30am-11:30pm 

ATMOSPHERE: Causal and relaxed. 


SOUND LEVEL: Conversational. 


RECOMMENDED DISHES: I love the lamb, beef and seafood Sections:!menu2 

BEVERAGES: Sodas, wine, missed drinks and teas ($3-$25). 

PRICE RANGE: Consult the menu link:!menu2

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