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DC Cuisine: THE ETHIOPIAN EXPERIENCE: Highlights from The DC Issue

Highlights from The DC Issue

Photography by IAN ALLEN


Friday, October 31, 2008

The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here


By Jennifer Olvera

According to the Ethiopian Embassy, Washington, DC has the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa — 15,000 as of the 2000 census, though unofficial estimates hover around 200,000. As a result, the number of Ethiopian restaurants in the city is on the rise.

Immigrants first started coming to the capital in droves back in the Seventies as a military coup overthrew the government led by Haile Selassie. “I don’t think anyone had the intention of staying,” says Zed Wondemu, owner of Zed’s Ethiopian Cuisine in Georgetown. “They just came for an American education with plans to go back.”

But economic and political conditions in Ethiopia quickly deteriorated after the coup, and few who had left the country were inclined to return. “The minute I finished college, the communists took over, and I had to unpack my stuff,” Wondemu recalls. “No one would have wanted my philosophies there.”

Wondemu, like so many others, opted to settle in and start a business in the DC area. Wondemu’s first attempt, a series of coffee shops located in office building lobbies, took off. In 1988, she set her sights on something bigger, opening a namesake restaurant, white tablecloths and all.

“Back then, Ethiopian food was not that popular,” she recalls. “We made no money. So, we had to advertise by giving away our food, by participating in things like Taste of DC. It was like we were doing double duty, promoting the restaurant as well as the cuisine. If it was French or Italian food, well, it would have been a different story.”

Fortunately, food giveaways — plus a healthy dose of community involvement — served her well.

“Putting myself out there not only helped my restaurant but the other [Ethiopian restaurants] that had started opening up as well,” Wondemu says. “We began educating the American public about our culture through our food.”

Initially, most of the city’s Ethiopian eateries opened in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. But early this century, many began moving to and opening in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, along 9th Street NW between U and T Streets.

There is a bit of controversy surrounding the shift. At one time dubbed “Black Broadway,” Shaw was once loaded with African American-owned jazz clubs, theaters and businesses and had its own established community. Today, however, many locals and tourists alike refer to the burgeoning corridor as Little Ethiopia, a designation Ethiopian business owners hope will further attract customers to the area.

“Both [Adams Morgan and Shaw] were really bad neighborhoods — ghettos, really,” Wondemu says. “The Ethiopian community helped revitalize them and make them nice.”

Dingy and dilapidated buildings were transformed into primary-hued storefronts, where live beats emanated; spicy, onion-based, berbere-laced stews — called wat— wafted from doorways; and a culturally diverse clientele, sopping up food with spongy, tangy inerja — not silverware — commingled.

The renaissance brought with it the opening of the perennially packed Dukem on U Street, where authentic live Ethiopian music, dance and food transport diners to the homeland, sans airfare. Into the wee hours, it’s where locals and tourists alike can be seen snacking on cardamom-accented beef tartare (called kitfo), chicken doro wat and cabbage, and chickpea-accented lentil stew.

Dining on Ethiopian fare is a ceremonial experience, one that centers around large platters of food, served family-style, at woven, basket-like tables. Beyond stews, meat and vegetables are turned into tibs, sautéed dishes with or without the addition of a salad-like concoction mixed in. Diners then tear pieces of crepe-like bread — custom dictates this is done with the right hand — to scoop up an array of saucy selections.
“Food is a shared experience in Ethiopia,” Wondemu says. “Sharing and loyalty are connected, and it’s believed that those who eat together won’t betray one another.”

Chili peppers, ginger root and garlic play a prominent role in the dishes, though flavors vary widely from one dish to the next. Other popular inclusions are basil, saffron, coriander, cumin and fenugreek. Usually, a variety of stews — some grain-based, others packed with meat or vegetables — are served at once. Some are fiery, while others simply contain an aromatic blend of spices. You won’t find pork on the menu — most Ethiopians consider themselves Ethiopian Orthodox Christian or Muslim and therefore are prohibited from eating pork.

And to drink? Meals are often paired with a golden, sweet honey wine called t’ej, or unfiltered beer.

Dessert is not integral to Ethiopian cuisine, but hand-roasted coffee — brewed in a clay pot, called a jebena — is often prepared tableside, with a flourish, and served with sugar once the coffee grounds have settled. Typically, frankincense or myrrh is lit during the process, adding a fragrant allure.

Some of the city’s Ethiopian eateries, including Dukem, are popular late-morning breakfast destinations. Exotic a.m. eats range from firfir (a spicy stew made with shredded inerja) to dulet (a spicy tripe-based dish) or thin, bready chechebsa.

“People are traveling more, so they’re accepting of things other than steak and salad,” says Wondemu. “Their taste buds are sophisticated, and they appreciate being able to go to a restaurant where each of the 20 dishes taste different from the next.”

Wondemu said she also thinks modern-day health consciousness has helped pave the way for more acceptance of Ethiopian cuisine throughout the city. “The preparation of dishes is very time-consuming,” she adds. “In addition to using fresh herbs and ingredients that have never been frozen, we also remove fat by washing meat with lemon and salt. A lot goes into making Ethiopian dishes, and people are really beginning to understand that.”





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