ANN ABOUT TOWN: How to Eat at Altu's
Sometimes, even if one is lucky enough to have been raised in a pretty cosmopolitan family, there are gaps. Even if, hypothetically, a person knows how to use chopsticks, handle a bowl of Japanese noodles, order from an Indian menu with confidence and take apart a lobster, there is still a chance that they have never eaten Ethiopian food.
They have heard about Ethiopian food, they have friends who eat at Altu’s all the time, but it gets more and more intimidating. Don’t you have to eat with your fingers? Isn’t it all super spicy? Worst of all, what if it’s all like the awful goat curry from that party in college?
The solution to this problem is to find one of those friends who eats at Altu’s all the time, and say “let’s go to lunch.”
Past the newly-painted purple and gold exterior, Altu’s is pretty low key. There are all kinds of folks there on a Tuesday afternoon, including what appear to be groups of office mates and a pair of linemen who have to jump up and leave before ordering because they receive an emergency page. There are also several small children present, which is very reassuring to the adult who is just a little terrified of embarrassing herself.
Altu’s is owned by Altaye Tadesse herself, and many of the menu options are her family recipes. There are an assortment of thick stews with beef, chicken or lamb, and a wide assortment of vegetables including lima beans, lentils and potatoes. Some dishes are spicy and others are “mild;” because they are all dishes that require long, slow cooking they are not made to order and spicy dishes can’t be made less spicy. You can, however, make a mild dish spicier by requesting some mitmita, a powdered mixture of hot peppers and other spices.
As a default, meals are served on a large piece of flat, spongy, sourdough bread made from teff flour called “injera,” and an extra roll is added to the plate, along with small portions of cabbage and salad. The idea is to break off a piece of injera and use it to pinch up a morsel of food as if you were making a tiny taco. According to an experienced Altu’s diner, “Altu’s is a great place to eat if you like to eat with your fingers, which happens to be my favorite way to eat.” (If you prefer not to eat with your fingers, you may order your food with rice and eat it with a fork).
The dishes are complex, satisfying and greatly enhanced by the tartness of the injera. As for the eating-with-fingers thing, there is just something freeing and sensual about scooping up food (with the right hand, according to custom) and getting it to your mouth. There may be a moment of embarrassment the first time a clump of lentils is lost on the way from the plate, but, well, everybody’s doing it. Once you finish the isolated roll of injera on your plate you can begin to use the larger piece beneath your food. It’s okay to lick your fingers.
It’s also good to know that Altu’s has many vegetarian options that are hearty and healthy, and that injera is gluten free. (Teff flour, from which injera is made, is naturally high in protein and fiber, and low in calories.) That, in combination with the relaxed atmosphere makes it a great place for groups in which there are multiple dietary concerns, and/or small children.
Altu's is located at 1312 Michigan Avenue in East Lansing, and is open Tuesday through Saturday.
Editor's Note: After publishing this article, we received communication from the owner of Altu's indicating that, although the injera bread is made with teff, which is gluten-free, the restaurant adds a small amount of wheat flour to the bread to compensate for the difference in altitude between Ethopia and East Lansing.