Mama Knows Best

Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn pours wine into one of her complex wats, which cooks for hours. Photographs by Matthew Worden.

There’s a term Ethiopians use to describe the cooking found in Washington-area Ethiopian restaurants: Europian.

It’s a wry acknowledgment of the ways a spicy, robust cuisine has been made to please Western tastes. When Yared Tesfaye opened Etete—“mama” in Amharic—four years ago, he set the goal of winning the hearts and stomachs of his skeptical countrymen.

In showcasing the cooking of his mother, Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn, he also hoped to introduce Westerners to the cooking he was used to eating at home. “She makes it just like she makes it for us,” Tesfaye says. “If you come to our house, it’s exactly the same as it is at the restaurant—the same ingredients, same spicing, everything.”

Shenegelgn was the cook at Fasika’s—the city’s best Ethiopian restaurant a decade ago—and a legend in the community as a caterer. Even with her son running the business and three assistants in the kitchen, she logs 16-hour days, often wandering into the dining room at the end of the night to spoon food onto customers’ plates. “My mom, when it comes to food, she’s crazy, man,” Tesfaye says. “She doesn’t sleep.”

A meal at Etete is built on stews, such as a bowl of doro wat (top right) and hearty veggie dishes, including a dish of collard greens and hot peppers called gomen.

Her wats, the spice-laden stews that are the backbone of the cuisine, take four hours, the chicken-and-egg dish doro wat five or six. “In Ethiopia, to find out if you have a good wife or not,” Tesfaye says, “you have her make doro wat.”

The process begins much the way French onion soup does, with the caramelization of chopped onions. Two hours later she stirs in a dollop of spiced butter, then a handful of berbere, the incendiary red-pepper mix; then she layers in pieces of marinated hen. Honey wine and red wine come next, and perhaps—her secret—a splash of Cognac. The wat simmers another couple of hours, with a half dozen spices sprinkled in before a soft-boiled egg is added five minutes before serving.

Shenegelgn’s complex, full-bodied, and insinuating dish is not merely a staple of the restaurant but a sort of signature dish for the city. There’s simply nothing else like it in the country—as a superstar fan whose picture graces the wall of the restaurant can attest: “Stevie Wonder said to his staff, ‘Where is the lady who used to cook for me at Fasika’s? Find her.’ ” Tesfaye smiles at the memory. “And they found her.”

Related:
Restaurant review of Etete

This article appeared as part of the 100 Best Bargain Restaurants package in the June, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.  

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