Washington D.C. is home to the second largest group of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia. And like so many cultures proud of and loyal to their traditions, they have brought their cuisine with them. Ethiopian specialty shops and restaurants line the streets of Shaw, specifically 9th NW between U and T. Although this influx of Ethiopian businesses is revitalizing a corner that was once pretty desolate, non-Ethiopian Shaw residents still do not officially accept “Little Ethiopia” as the name of their neighborhood, especially since the owners and operators of most of these restaurants actually do not live in the area. They have a point and the name isn’t legally official, as far as the city is concerned anyway. But for the sake of this article… Yeah, Little Ethiopia.
My first stop was a place called Habesha Market, a specialty shop which carries all your basic Ethiopian needs. They’ve really got it all: spices and powders, niter kibbeh (spice-infused clarified butter), an entire shelf of injera bread, prepared foods such as a stew of beef tripe and tongue, but also CD’s, books and calling cards. Despite being very mom-and-pop in appearance, the menu is made available through the miracles of modern technology – a QR code that works perfectly well. Service is very friendly too. A small, not too fancy space is set apart for those who want to eat in. Russia has its grechnevaya krupa (buckwheat groats) and the Chinese have their congee (from rice). Mexicans have atole (from maize) and, of course, everyone knows oatmeal. Ethiopia’s answer to breakfast porridge? Kinche, a mass of cracked wheat fried in the very popular, flavored niter kibbeh butter with a few bits of green scallion. Habesha’s Market’s version is awesome. The wheat is smokey and nutty, crispy without becoming greasy, picking up the flavors of cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, or nutmeg from the kibbeh fat it is cooked with. Simple and filling, equally good before a long day of working in the field and a long weekend afternoon passed out on the couch. (Guess which one I chose!)I got another popular breakfast dish at Habesha Market, the Ful Medames. Kind of like the huevos rancheros of Africa. Originally an Egyptian/Sudanese dish, ful combines hearty smashed broad beans with plenty of berbere, a spice mixture and fundamental ingredient in most Ethiopian dishes that contains some combination of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek (Don’t worry, I have no idea what half of those are either!) The broads are served with a fluffy, airy omelet and some sour cream to mix into the sauce according to personal preference. The beans have a great mushy, comforting feel to them but they retain their tight little texture by not being smashed completely to a paste. The soupy bean sauce picks up some of the starch and thicken nicely. It had good flavor, though I think the folks at the market made it on the milder side so that it didn’t burn my tongue off. This can quickly be remedied by adding some extra berbere.
My next stop was Zenebech Injera, a hole-in-the-wall spot on T NW, which seems to be known for having the best Ethiopian veggie platter in the city. It’s a family owned/operated place and Arsenal is their team of choice. Zenebech’s wife makes fresh injera every day, spreading the fermented teff flour batter over a hot, circular baking surface like a crêpe, while a young guy in an Arsenal jersey (Zenebech’s son?) brings out the platters. Hungry regulars scoop at their wats and tsebhis with the spongy bread while they stare at a TV that plays soccer constantly. The veggie plate consisted of a Gomen (collard greens cooked with onion and garlic, seasoned with ginger, cardamom and chilis), Kik Alicha (a mild stew of split peas flavored with onion, tomato and plenty of turmeric), Atkilt Wat (a bright yellow dish of steamed cabbage and potatoes flavored with garlic, ginger and turmeric), some chunky Misir Wat (red lentil and onion with plenty of berbere) and Shiro Wat (a creamy stew made from a chickpea powder called shiro, commonly used as a thickening agent). There was also some extra berbere sauce on the side to add some heat, wherever desired. I very much enjoyed the rolls of injera here, which were spongy, soft and characterized by a sour tang similar to that of sourdough bread. The texture is addictive, though it is said to expand in one’s stomach in order to fend off hunger. So watch it with eating too much of the stuff! My dining companions’ favorite wat seemed to be the misir, which had a great bumpy texture and a very complex flavor. My favorite was actually the creamy shiro which reminded me of a loose hummus in its comforting, silky texture. I wasn’t too impressed by the collard greens, which seemed a bit watery and didn’t have too much flavor.
After this came Uptown Ethiopian Fusion Cuisine, where I took part in a coffee ceremony before ordering food. This consisted of a young woman bringing out still green coffee beans in a sizzling hot saucepan and toasting them up with plenty of smoke before grinding it down to make a cup. As expected, the coffee was remarkably strong and bitter, perking me up immediately and a few hours later letting me down very easy. The cup still had some creamy, smooth ground grains on the bottom melted into an enjoyable texture. I enjoyed my time at the restaurant, though I’m not really sure about how “fusion” or “uptown” came into the name…
At Uptown I got Lentil Sambusas, fried little triangles of crispy, flaky dough wrapped around a chunky filling of mildy spiced lentils. They came fresh out of the fire and were too hot to touch for a few minutes, just enough time to ask for some berbere sauce and spicy yet floral Ethiopian mustard to dip into. Being a fan of fried stuffed pastries (samosas, empanadas, Jin deui, pork buns, etc.) I was very much looking forward to this one. The phyllo-type dough was nice, very crisp though a tad oily (nothing a quick pat down with a napkin can’t fix, however!). I loved the lentil filling which had a beaded, bumpy texture that turned mushy and comfortable after a few bites. The flavor of the lentils wasn’t too interesting, but dipping the pastry into the two sauces added plenty of heat – the pure, white-hot chili heat from the berbere and a floral, slightly acidic heat from the mustard. Lentils tend to make me feel warm and cozy. In fried pastry form is no exception.
I also got a great assortment of Ethiopian and Eritrean favorites at Uptown. It was pretty similar to the veggie platter at Zenebech, except that it was served on a colorful woven mesob table and had some extra stuff on there. In addition to the collard greens (which were way more flavorful here!) there was also some spinach gomen, which was flavored heavily with garlic. There was a pile Bamya Alicha on the plate, and this ended up being my favorite. It’s basically okra stewed with tomato, garlic, ginger and cardamom. The okra maintains a bite and is not overcooked. It bleeds forth its slimy, gooey mucilage but not too much to make it difficult to eat. It was surprising for me to see okra on a platter of traditional Ethiopian food, until I was reminded that the plant is actually originally from Africa. One theory states that it’s specifically from Ethiopia. Cool!
The final stop was an Ethiopian/Eritrean bakery type thing, which sells wonderful Italian cookies and cakes, along with coffee or tea. Why Italian? I guess because Italy once tried unsuccessfully to colonize Ethiopia and some of its culture was left over in the process. I had crunchy, delicious anise-almond and ginger-cherry biscotti as well as a forthy, light slice of tiramisu. The tea was Lipton but the steeping liquid was flavored with cardamom, clove and cinnamon bark, so it contained plenty of wonderful flavor and was great to dip the twice baked cookies into. It was the first tea that felt nice on the first chilly day of pre-autumn.When I heard that Yetenbi is also well-known for its fabulous rendition of Ethiopia’s national dish, I needed to try this as well. What came out was a small cast iron dish filled half-way with Kitfo, which is minced raw beef marinated in mimita spice and nitter kibbeh. The other half was taken up by tangy, crumbly ayiba cheese curds. The dish came with warm injera to scoop with. Although I was initially surprised and off-put by the fact that the meat was slightly warm, unlike other beef tartares I have sampled in the past, I ended up enjoying kitfo immensely. The fresh meat picked up the variety of flavors of the niter kibbeh, which also softened it and added some very tasty grease for the injera to soak up. The heat from the African birdseye chile in the mimita spice kicked things up a bit while cardamom and clove added a very feint hint of autumnal comfort. The ayiba was a perfect pairing with the meat, its pungent acidity, similar to that of feta, soothed the spicy flavors of the kitfo. It was also quite a beautiful juxtaposition of colors. I must admit, having bleeding raw beef and strained cottage cheese right next to creamy tiramisu was a bit odd. But I guess so is the colonial history of Ethiopia…
As it turns out, Little Ethiopia has a lot to offer. The food is fresh, very flavorful and pretty. It’s also ridiculously underpriced for quality. On days where I just don’t feel like picking up a fork, I’m headed off to Shaw to scoop myself some stew with injera in my hands.