Other immigrant cuisines have developed fancy American mash-ups. We went to Addis Ababa to find out why there's no artisanal doro wat.
By Todd Kliman | Photographs by Jiro Ose
On one side of the street, an old goat herder is guiding his dirt-flecked flock.
On the other, a young boy with short arms and no hands—only stumps—is begging me for money. “Crazy Addis,” says our cackling driver, who, before stopping at a light, was himself ripping through the chaotic city with an Italian cabbie’s blithe disregard for pedestrians.
Tsiona Bellete and I have just touched down in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Bellete, who runs a restaurant in Rockville, is making her first trip home in eight years, looking to reacquaint herself with the food she serves. As a food critic from America’s most Ethiopian-heavy city, I’m tagging along to learn something about that very same cuisine.
The first stop on our itinerary is lunch at Bellete’s brother’s house. Hurtling alongside the path of a new light-rail track that cuts through downtown like a crude scar, I catch a glimpse of the recently constructed African Union, towering over a nascent skyline filled with cranes.
Four decades after a military coup that toppled Haile Selassie, the emperor of 44 years, 15 years after a war with neighboring Eritrea, and nearly a decade after a government crackdown on free speech, Ethiopia is enjoying a period of relative calm. A somewhat more tolerant state-run government has emerged, and with it a renewed vision of establishing Addis Ababa as “the capital of Africa.”
But amid the forced march to modernity, many shops operate out of metal lean-tos, and utility outages are a fact of everyday life. It’s hard to tell whether Addis is a cosmopolis on the cusp of arrival or a city that might at any moment come undone. “I don’t know where I am,” Bellete says, gawking and tsk-tsking.
The last thing I am after the throttling drive is hungry, but that’s why I’m here—why we’re here. To eat.
Her brother’s cook brings out a pizza-size platter topped with a round of injera, the fermented, crepe-like bread, and begins heaping on stews like an artist dabbing paint onto her palette. The colors are varied and vivid—greens, yellows, reds, oranges—and I succumb, the subtly spiced dishes proving to be exactly the comfort food I need after a trip halfway around the world.
By the time I landed in Addis last February, I’d been eating Ethiopian food in Washington for more than 20 years.
My wife and I had our first date at the late, great Red Sea in Adams Morgan, sharing the house specialty, a hot and hearty shrimp wat. Since then, I’ve learned to cook the food at home and have become friends with many Ethiopians, annually attending the lavish all-day feasts at Christmas and Easter.
“You’re part habesha,” my friends like to joke, invoking the word Ethiopians use to identify themselves. Nah, I say. Maybe just a little more avid than the many fans of the food in our region.
If you’ve lived in Washington any length of time, you’ve probably visited an Ethiopian restaurant. And you’ve probably eaten well. Since the 1970s, when the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants began arriving here, the food has been a fixture of the dining scene. Back then, expense-account French restaurants and steakhouses predominated. One way of being guaranteed a good, inexpensive meal was to go out for Ethiopian.
Four decades later, the area has become home to 35,000-plus Ethiopians (though many in the community believe the figure is at least three times that)—more than in any other US city—along with scores of Ethiopian-owned restaurants. Concert- and theatergoers know to head to Dukem and Etete in the U Street corridor for a dependably cheap, filling meal before a night out. The adventurous head to Abay Market in Falls Church to chase slices of raw beef with shots of whiskey. On H Street, Northeast, upscale Ethiopic has become, for many, the place to introduce out-of-towners to a new cuisine.
Not only have these spots become so entrenched as to feel virtually indigenous, but tearing off a piece of injera at an Ethiopian restaurant has become a signature experience in Washington food culture—one of the few eating experiences you can have that you can’t have elsewhere.
But even though the cuisine’s profile has risen, the food itself hasn’t exactly evolved. Ethiopian restaurants have become markedly more fashionable over the last 20 years—gone are the days of sitting around woven-grass tables in dark, sometimes dank dens—but the cooking is hardly different from what you would have found four decades ago. A meal then is a meal now.
The stir-fried meats known as tibs, the spiced proto-curries known as wats, the various lentil stews—these ubiquitous dishes have somehow remained impervious to the Americanization that nearly every other ethnic cuisine has eventually embraced.
Think of an enchilada: In Mexico, the meat-filled tortilla may be topped with crumbled white cheese, but only sparingly. In America, enchiladas are smothered in yellow cheese. There’s no Ethiopian equivalent of that kind of mutation. Nor has anyone thought to mash up tibs with tacos the way Annandale’s DaMoim, a Korean fusion restaurant, has, pairing the sweet beef ribs called kalbi with tortillas and cheese. I can’t begin to imagine an Ethiopian Rasika, the Penn Quarter restaurant that has redefined Indian cooking in America by reinterpreting traditional dishes, lightening up thick gravies and showcasing subtly sauced meats for Western tastes.
As a food writer whose work so often involves covering these only-in-America culinary mash-ups, I often wondered why this was. Why had no enterprising local chef come along and attempted to Westernize the Ethiopian meal—searing a duck breast, say, then saucing it with a lush, spicy wat?
My curiosity only grew after I met Bellete, who’d just opened a restaurant in Rockville called Sheba and was encountering some resistance as she sought to tweak her native cuisine. When we first spoke last winter, she told me an Ethiopian customer had recently criticized her gomen besiga, a dish traditionally made with beef and collard greens. Bellete had prepared a slight variation, substituting lamb and spinach. “This is ferenji food!” the woman fumed. Food of the white man.
Like many well-educated elites of her generation, Bellete left Ethiopia after the repressive Derg regime toppled Emperor Selassie. She was still attached to her homeland, staying up late to catch the popular soap Sew Le Sew on Ethiopian TV and turning to the app Viber at all hours to text with friends and cousins. But aside from just a handful of brief trips home over the years, she had been gone more than three decades. After her anger over the diner’s stinging remark subsided, she began to think that maybe the woman was right—maybe her three decades in the West had somehow changed her tastes.
Bellete explained how she decided to see the remark as a summons: It was time to go home and explore her culinary roots. After hearing all this—so much self-examination over what appeared to be little more than a small adjustment to a simple dish—I was even more curious to understand why the cuisine seemed so resistant to change, and asked if I could come along.
Spongy, crepe-like bread atop which dishes are served. Also a utensil—use it to pinch small bites of food.
A spice blend containing red pepper and more than a dozen other seasonings that’s used across the cuisine.
A stir-fry of meat, onions, and chilies and a gateway dish for newbies.
A rich stew, often including hunks of lamb or beef (or, in doro wat, chicken and egg).
A meatless stew of yellow split peas and onions.
A mound of raw chopped beef mixed with spiced butter. You can request that it be cooked, but it’s best left raw.
A cold salad of tomatoes and jalapeño, often added as a garnish.
I ate abundantly and often wonderfully in Addis, with warm, generous people at my side.
But no matter where I found myself—at a friend of a friend’s house, a tourist-trap restaurant, a neighborhood dive—I sat down to the same dishes I’d eaten hundreds of times back home.
Well, the same in theory, anyway.
At a friend of Bellete’s, the mesir wat—a simple dish of red lentils, ginger, butter, onion, and garlic that I knew well—was so explosively flavorful it seemed new to me. The same was true of the kik alicha, an almost creamy stew of yellow split peas and softened onions; the shiro, a porridge of chickpea flour with the silken texture of a velouté; the azifa, a cool, green lentil dish laced with chilies and mustard—all were cleaner and sharper than the versions I’d come across in Washington.
The injera, too, was like none I’d ever eaten. The spongy, slightly sour crepe doubles as serving platter and utensil in Ethiopian cuisine, whether you eat it in Africa or in America. Every dish is mounded atop a large round of the crepe, and diners use separate, bundled rolls of it to pinch small tastes of the food. The practice dates back millennia, preceding even the creation of Ethiopia itself.
In Africa, the crepe is made from teff, a whole grain that imparts a memorable nutty flavor. In the US, where few American farmers grow teff, it’s historically been hard to come by. Cooks have had to turn to basic white flour, and the result is usually pancake-thick injera that lodges in the gut. Only in recent years has the quality of the crepe slowly improved, as teff has become more widely available and bakers have learned to incorporate buckwheat and barley into the mix. (For most restaurants in Washington, it’s too costly to import injera from Ethiopia, and by the time it arrives, the quality is poor.)
At that first meal in Addis, at Bellete’s brother’s house, it was the injera that had impelled me to keep eating. The bread was thin and almost lacy at the edges, like an Indian dosa, and so brown it looked as if it was mixed with dark cocoa. The fermentation was different, too—deeper, reminiscent of a cask ale. “You can make a wat in America the same as you would here,” Bellete’s brother remarked as we ate, “and eating it will be completely different, because the injera is different.”
Yet all of those revelations paled beside the revelation of the berbere.
If you were to ask an Ethiopian to name the dish that best defines the cuisine, you wouldn’t get an answer. Or not the one you were looking for, anyway. That’s because the premise is all wrong. Not a dish: a spice.
It’s called berbere, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Ethiopian food couldn’t exist without it. Pronounced BARE-buh-ray, it’s the crucial element in doro wat, a chicken-and-egg dish that often commemorates a special occasion—it’s what gives the rich, onion-based sauce its distinctive maroon color, not to mention its complexity and heat. Berbere is in the red lentils of mesir wat, and it’s brushed onto injera to make kategna, a popular snack that tastes a little like meatless jerky. It’s also in niter kibe, the spiced butter that brings a kick to kitfo, perhaps the original steak tartare.
Technically, berbere is a blend, but that hardly begins to describe its function. Berbere takes the food from something simple and one-note, or hot, to something with a broader range and depth: not spicy but spiced. Each restaurant has its own version, and preparing the mix is more labor-intensive than making a Peking duck. Peppers, the core ingredient, have to be seeded and rinsed before being dried. There are two mixes—wet and dry—and some of the spices that go into them have to be toasted and ground. After a week, sometimes more, of this painstaking preparation, the berbere is finally ready.
That’s how it’s done in Ethiopia, anyway. In Washington, restaurateurs get their berbere from suppliers in powder form, already ground and shipped over from Ethiopia. Some believe that makes for an inferior product. They also suspect that the imported berbere is a lesser one, in much the same way that tea the English send to America is less robust than tea they keep for themselves.
Bellete insisted we pay a visit to Berbere Tera, the market in Addis where spices are ground, to learn what was going into the blends she was forced to buy. At the entrance to the market, a kneeling woman, leather-faced and wearing a long, dangling cross, was sifting powders and seeds with the aid of a woven mat. Inside, a mill was grinding thousands of red peppers into a fine, potent dust. Our eyes burned and we started to choke, unable to breathe. It was like being in a sandstorm—if that sandstorm had also been flavored with Sriracha.
When I stopped gagging, I got Bellete to ask the woman how many spices would end up in the blend. I had always figured that berbere was a simple blend akin to herbes de Provence or Chinese five-spice powder. I knew it contained red pepper, cardamom, and ginger, and I guessed there were maybe six or seven others.
But the woman’s answer was an astonishment: 25 to 30, at least, she said.
“We’re not getting 25 to 30 spices back home, no way. Maybe 15,” Bellete said. “Maybe.”
That explained why so much of what we ate in Ethiopia seemed sharper and more complex to me. What it didn’t explain, though, was why it still felt like nothing new.
Why does a cuisine change? What pushes it to evolve?
In America, the established pattern among immigrant cultures is that as soon as the first generation rises up, the parents and their old-world ideas recede. Prolonged settlement lifts fortunes, leading to worldlier, more open tastes and deeper assimilation.
Nowhere is the pattern easier to see than in our so-called ethnic restaurants. The first generation sticks to the cuisine’s roots. The second generation ditches the city for the suburbs, rejecting the mom-and-pop style of restaurant in favor of something slicker, trendier. And inevitably, the younger generations nearly always drift toward a Western-leaning brand of fusion cooking. This is how the infinite varieties of Chinese cooking came to be simplified, in America, into chow mein and beef-and-broccoli; how Mexican food came to be synonymous with, as comic Jim Gaffigan put it, a tortilla with cheese, meat, or vegetables.
Why hasn’t the same thing happened with Ethiopian restaurants?
When I asked James McCann, a professor at Boston University who is widely regarded as one of the foremost authorities in the West on African cuisine, I got an answer as complex as berbere.
The educated elite who came to America in the ’70s might not look like culinary pioneers, he said, but in selecting the roughly two dozen dishes they would introduce to American diners, they in effect codified the meaning of Ethiopian food in the West. (Most of these dishes come from the Gondar region, he said, so just as Sicilian and Neapolitan red sauce and pizza came to mean Italian food to most Americans, Gondarean dishes have come to mean Ethiopian.)
There was no perceived benefit to restaurateurs intent on selling a form of authenticity to deviate from these dishes, he said. Not that there was ever much interest in trying. Recent immigrants “are conservative in nature, generally,” McCann explained, and when it comes to food, “Ethiopians are among the most conservative eaters in the world. They will eat beef and mutton and chicken and legumes, and that’s it.”
The conservatism of the cuisine is also in part a byproduct of an effort to preserve the culture. Unlike nearly every other African nation, Ethiopia was never colonized—Italy only managed to occupy it, briefly, from 1936 to 1942. Its citizens are enormously proud of this fact, though some elites, like Bellete, see it as a dubious heritage when it comes to food. Very few new flavors, techniques, or spices ever found their way into the culinary mix. “We eat the pasta, though,” she jokes.
In Addis, my queries about why the food of today was hardly different from that of, say, 20 years ago, didn’t seem to make sense. At Bellete’s cousin’s house one afternoon, one of the guests—a man who had lived in America for nearly two decades but had recently returned to Addis—turned my question back to me.
“Why pick 20 years?” he said. “Why not 200? Or 2,000?” To me, the answer was simple: That was roughly the amount of time that had passed since Ethiopia exited the grip of a murderous dictatorship. The cityscape of Addis was changing in dynamic ways. To my mind, its culinary life should be, too.
But that wasn’t how the guest saw it. He talked about the coup, the war, the decades of suppression and fear. Just as Ethiopians are enormously proud that their country has been called the birthplace of civilization, he explained, they’re proud of the fact that they’re eating the same food as their nomadic, tribal ancestors. (And, not least, eating that food in the exact same way: with their hands.) Continuity can be equated with conservatism, yes. But in a country with a long history of political uncertainty and upheaval, it also signals stability and comfort.
I did see a few hints in Addis of a coming evolution.
The best meals I ate were the least traditional, served by a childhood friend of Bellete’s named Kiddy Nebiyeloul who has a complicated relationship with her home country that has influenced her approach to food.
Nebiyeloul’s father was Ethiopia’s minister of intelligence under Emperor Selassie in the early 1970s and was among a group of insiders who were rounded up and executed when his government was overthrown. After the coup, she spent close to three decades in America, where she first experimented with eating meatlessly. Now a vegan, she describes the food in her cozy, colorful Addis home as “modern Ethiopian vegan cuisine.”
Considering how much Ethiopia reveres its meat—one of its most prized delicacies, tere sega, is strips of raw beef with a spicy pepper salt—you could say Nebiyeloul’s dishes amount to a form of blasphemy. She uses lots of fresh vegetables. No butter, ever—vegetable oil, mostly, sometimes even olive oil. The food is light, the lightest Ethiopian food I’ve ever had. But like a welterweight whose size belies his punch, it’s sneakily potent.
One night, Nebiyeloul treated Bellete and me to a kitfo that essentially turns the steak tartare upside down. At Meaza or Abay Market in Falls Church—the best places for kitfo in Washington—the chopped, raw beef is spiced, drizzled with butter until it glistens, and mounded on the plate: an assertion of the primal power of freshly slaughtered meat. Nebiyeloul’s kitfo, by contrast, isn’t made with beef—it’s made with tofu.
The difference in color between the almost purple-red traditional version and her pale, adulterated take could not have been more extreme. And sure enough, the mineral, blood-borne taste that I always identified with kitfo wasn’t there. But the texture was—crumbling the tofu to resemble ground beef and sizzling it in olive oil had resulted in a soft, appealing texture—and the spices gave the dish not just a heady kick but also depth.
Her wat made with mushrooms was even better. I couldn’t stop scooping up the luscious, meatless stew. Nebiyeloul beamed when I said she had shown me that the diced lamb or beef normally used in wats was really beside the point. The meat—or vegetable, in her case—is just a delivery system for the sauce.
I wasn’t the only convert. “I’m taking these to my restaurant,” Bellete announced.
Nebiyeloul was just one of several agents of change we saw in Addis. The biggest food personality in Ethiopia right now is a woman named Giordana Kebedom, host of the lone cooking program on Ethiopian TV, which claims almost 10 million viewers. “I have more followers,” she bragged, “than Gordon Ramsay.”
What makes Kebedom so interesting is that she’s not out to showcase traditional Ethiopian cooking. She moved to Italy with her parents when she was 11 and spent 16 years in Rome before moving to Addis, in 1994, to open a succession of restaurants. Nursing a glass of sparkling mineral water, she explained that her approach to cooking was a response to the two worlds that made her. “I am always looking to fuse,” she said.
What Kebedom was calling fusion was far from the freewheeling experimentation the word often connotes in the West, land of ramen hamburgers and foie gras hot dogs. In the conservative culinary culture of Ethiopia, however, she was a certifiable free spirit. On a recent episode, she had made a dish of beef mortadella with pasta, peas, and—instead of chili-pepper flakes, the Italian way—a few pinches of berbere. Two cuisines, one dish. And the foundation was Italian, not Ethiopian.
Ethiopians are slowly receptive to new ideas in a way they weren’t just a generation ago, Kebedom told me, noting that she hears all the time from viewers who have begun mixing and matching flavors, spices, and traditions “and loving it.” The important thing, she believes, is not to try too much too fast. As she puts it, “We are transitioning.”
When I left Addis, broccoli was just beginning to show up in the markets. It was introduced for much the same reason tofu was: to satisfy the demand of the thousands of workers from China who were flooding the city to work in construction. Who knew what dishes one new vegetable in the mix might give rise to? It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine that a version of gomen with broccoli instead of collard greens would eventually find its way to the West.
TV, that great assimilator, was already spreading Kebedom’s message across the country. Exiled Ethiopians like Nebiyeloul are returning to their homeland to be part of its ongoing transformation, and it’s inevitable they’ll bring their interest in Western cooking styles and approaches with them.
By the end of our trip, Bellete wasn’t sure how much of the past she wanted to retain in her cooking and how much of the future she was willing to embrace. But when I dropped by her restaurant recently, some months after we returned, it was clear that Sheba wasn’t the same place.
Bellete had added a tofu dish to the menu: a version of gomen ayeb, made not with collards and cheese but with spinach and tofu. Mushroom wat was a frequent special. And she was excited to roll out a line of dips—two kinds of hummus, made not with chickpeas but with lentils; the spicier of the two tasted like a puréed mesir wat—and injera chips. “People like to snack,” she said, “and they love hummus. And everybody, vegetarians and vegans, can eat hummus.” Not only were the chips and dips a fitting synthesis of Ethiopia and America, her two culinary worlds, but they could only have been made by an exile.
Bellete had just enlisted a factory to produce them in large numbers and was trying to get the hundreds of Ethiopian markets in Washington to stock them. Whole Foods was next. One day, they might make their way to Ethiopia, too.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.