The Cuisine of the Ethiopian Jews

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WHO ARE THE JEWS OF ETHIOPIA? Are they the millennia-old descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel? Or are they simply the ancestors of Yemeni Jews who migrated to Ethiopians in the last several centuries?

Israel has determined that they are, in fact, ancient Hebrews, even though modern genetics has determined the latter. But regardless of their origins, the food of Ethiopian Jews is very much like the food of most other Ethiopians – with, of course, a few cultural exceptions and unique traditions.

A Beta Israel village in Ethiopa, c. 1860s

A Beta Israel village in Ethiopa, c. 1860s

Very few people in Ethiopia now practice Judaism because most of the Jews of Ethiopia, who call themselves Beta Israel (“the house of Israel”), moved to Israel during Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, two daring airlifts in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and at various times since then. Israel now has about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, a third of them born there after their parents immigrated, and there are also about 1,000 Beta Israel living in the United States as well.

The question of whether any Jews still live in Ethiopia is a trickier one. Israel has recently completed Operation Dove’s Wing, a program – launched in 2010 – to bring what the country considers to be the last Ethiopian Jews to Israel. But the program came down to the definition of “Jew” under its Law of Return. These final emigrants, called Falash Mura, say their families were historically Jewish but converted to Christianity generations ago under pressure or in fear for their lives. Some also claim to be Jewish through the ancestry of their fathers, and Jewish law only recognizes matrilineal ancestry (because, in Biblical times, you could never be sure who a child’s father was). Falash Mura will have to undergo conversion in Israel.

Meanwhile, back in Ethiopia, about 7,000 people still claim to be Jews. But Israeli law doesn’t define them as such, so Operation Dove’s Wing won’t bring them to Israel. They live mostly in the area around Gondar, the historic center of Beta Israel culture.

An Ethiopian spice shop in Israel

An Ethiopian spice shop in Israel

When the Beta Israel lived in and near Gondar, they made their livelihood as skilled and valued pottery makers – the best craftsmen in the country, some people say. This skill left with them, although there are many other cultures in Ethiopia that make pottery. I have an Ethiopian friend who tells me that when he was growing up in Gondar, he remembered how good his mother’s shiro tasted. But years later, it somehow didn’t taste as good. His mother told him that she was no longer making it a shakla dist – a traditional clay pot – because she couldn’t get any after the Beta Israel emigrated.

The new generation of Israeli-born Ethiopian Jews has become a bit more Westernized (or Middle Easternized) in their culinary practice, absorbing the cuisines of non-Ethiopian cultures. But they do still maintain many of the dishes and practices of their homeland. Some people use the term Falasha to refer to the Beta Israel. It’s derived from a word in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, meaning “foreigner” or “immigrant,” and many now consider it to be derogatory.

In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel ate like other Ethiopians, with a few exceptions related to Jewish dietary laws: For example, they didn’t eat raw meat, a beloved dish throughout the country. Most lived in towns surrounding the old Ethiopian capital of Gondar, and many were poor, just like their Christian compatriots. In addition to injera, Ethiopian Jews would sometimes eat a leavened bread with sesame seeds on it, as well as using sesame seeds in other ways. But this was a Gondar regional custom, not a uniquely Jewish one. Because of fear and cultural taboos, Christians and Jews would rarely break injera together, even though their food was largely the same.

A restaurant in Tel Aviv

A restaurant in Tel Aviv

Ethiopian Jews celebrate the Sabbath with a special large loaf of bread called berekete, which the woman of the household bakes all night under an open flame on a hearth. She also lets buttermilk cook for a long time until it turns to cheese. After synagogue on Saturday morning, the family eats the bread, sometimes adding spicy berbere to the cheese and soaking the bread in it. There’s also tebugna, a small loaf of bread often served to guests with coffee, and engotcha (or angotcha), about the size of a biscuit, given to children. Habash Ethiopian Restaurant in Tel Aviv serves kosher meals and offers “angotcha with honey” as a “last course” at the bottom of its menu. (Watch a video of Habash in Tel Aviv.)

The scholar Monika Edelstein notes that the “Shabbat [Sabbath] observance is currently a blend of Ethiopian and Israeli custom.” But because of strict Sabbath rules in Jewish law against lighting fires, observant Ethiopian Jews in Israel can’t perform a traditional coffee (buna) ceremony on the Sabbath. She once heard a story about “a woman suffering from powerful caffeine headaches who abstained from making coffee on Shabbat for fear of being seen as not Jewish and subsequently deported. Jewish law allows for the preparation of instant coffee on Shabbat as long as the water has been heated prior to Shabbat. The fact that coffee, but not buna — a quintessential sign of Ethiopianness — can be made on Shabbat exposes a distinction between Ethiopian and Israeli practices.”

Zenash Beyene, the proprietress of Ras Dashen restaurant in Chicago, grew up Beta Israel in Ethiopia, and she still cherishes her memories of berekete. As we talked about those days at her restaurant, a Tigrayan Christian friend joined our conversation and wrote the word in Amharic.

Dipping engotcha in honey  at a Gdeft celebration in Israel

Dipping engotcha in honey
at a Gdeft celebration in Israel

Zenash says that the Beta Israel and Tigrayan people are very close. “If you test his blood and my blood,” she says, pointing to her friend, “same thing.”
When the Passover holiday ends, the Beta Israel enjoy a celebration called Gdeft, ending eight days of eating matzos with a feast that includes engotcha dipped in honey, whose stickiness represents the closeness of family, and whose sweetness is a holiday treat. (A salty variety of engotcha is called dabeh.) The meal features generous servings of wots, alichas and t’ej, along with singing, dancing and prayers.

Like their Christian and Moslem neighbors, the Jews of Ethiopia don’t eat pork, as proscribed by biblical dietary laws. But kosher eating goes deeper than that, and the Beta Israel tend to follow all of the rules. Ethiopian Christians use kibe in their beef dishes, even though the same rules that forbid the consumption of pork also forbid the mixing of meat and dairy. Many Beta Israel don’t mix the two elements because of kosher dietary laws, and some cooks won’t even use kibe in chicken dishes, although that’s more a matter of choice than custom.

Orit Getanek – born in Ethiopia, raised from age 9 in Israel, and educated in clinical psychology in Chicago – observes Jewish dietary laws strictly, although her cousin believes it’s kosher (so to speak) to use kibe in chicken dishes.

Ethiopian Jews visiting Israel in 1955,  long before the airlift

Ethiopian Jews visiting Israel in 1955,
long before the airlift

“With chicken,” Orit told me when I met her in Chicago a few years ago, “it’s more rabbinic law, not Torah law.” She followed the rules even in Chicago, which meant she rarely ate at restaurants, and she got her injera from Zenash. Injera among Beta Israel in Ethiopia was pretty much the same as it was in Christian homes, and Orit also remembers eating leavened bread covered with sesame seeds when she lived in Ethiopia.

To celebrate Passover in Ethiopia, Beta Israel would sometimes make a variation of matzos using chick peas and would mark the end of the eight-day bread-free holiday by eating kategna, which is lightly pan-toasted injera smeared with berbere-spiced kibe. To break the 24-hour fast at the end of Yom Kippur, celebrants might eat yedoro dabo, a doughy leavened bread (dabo) that they dip in a spicy chicken (doro) sauce.

The Sabbath meal, for people who could afford it, would often be doro wot, a dish enjoyed by all Ethiopians: It’s a chicken drumstick (or thigh) in a rich spicy berbere sauce served with a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the tradition of having doro wot on the Sabbath continues in Israel, whereas non-Ethiopian Israelis often have a stew called cholent made with beef, potatoes, beans and some sort of grain (barley or rice, depending upon the recipe and the tradition). As a sacramental drink, Beta Israel families in Ethiopia who didn’t have wine or t’ej will drink talla, the grainy Ethiopian homemade beer.

The Bible also forbids slaughtering and eating a wounded animal, and observant Ethiopian Jews obey. In Ethiopia, if their cow had a wound, they would give it to a Christian neighbor, who gladly turned it into siga wot.

In Israel, food customs have changed somewhat for Ethiopian Jews. Mothers still make injera to eat with traditional Ethiopian cuisine, as well as less traditional Ethiopian-style dishes, like a wot made of goat rather than lamb. But the Middle Eastern and European Jewish influence is strong in the kitchen, especially as new generations come along.

Couscous, falafel and schnitzel are common in the homes of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews, many of whom remain strictly kosher. So is shawarma, which to an Ethiopian is a little like tibs. And because many of the children of Ethiopian Jews eat at school every day or even go away to boarding school, the emerging generation has become much more diverse at the mesob, often eating Israeli food during the week and Ethiopian food with the family at home on the weekends.

JUST AS THEY HAVE AROUND THE WORLD, Ethiopian immigrants in Israel have become restaurateurs, establishing places that range from the modern to the ultra mom ‘n’ pop.

For example, there’s Habash, one of the more upscale places in Tel Aviv, with its elegant interior and generous meals. (Take a video visit to Habash.) Others, like Almaz in Tel Aviv, have a homier decor more reminiscent of Ethiopia. And Jerusalem’s Ethio-Irsael Restaurant offers strictly kosher meals. You’ll find nearly a dozen Ethiopian restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some of them so small that mostly only Ethio-Israelis patronize them. And at Tenat Ethiopian Restaurant in Tel Aviv, dancers from the Ethiopian Center sometimes perform.

When Yossi Vassa, an Ethio-Israeli actor, comedian and playwright, toured the United States in 2012, he was delighted to visit San Francisco and see so many Ethiopian restaurants.

Ethiopian food in Israel  (photo by Justin Jacobs)

Ethiopian food in Israel
(photo by Justin Jacobs)

“It’s amazing,” he told The Jewish Independent. “Americans have so much appreciation for injera.” Israeli don’t embrace Ethiopian food the way Americans do, he added, because “Israeli society doesn’t see difference as something positive.”

There are even a few Ethiopian cookbooks published in Israel. The biggest one I’ve found, המטבח האתיופי (Ha-Mitbah Ha-Etyopi, or “Ethiopian Cuisine”), is a handsome 215-page glossy paperback with lots of color photos. The top of each recipe presents the name of the dish in Hebrew, and below that, the Amharic name for the dish in Hebrew and in transliterated English, with the ingredients and recipes all in Hebrew.

There’s also the 27-page Not on Injera Alone: Nutrition of the Ethiopian People of Israel, which names each dish in English and Hebrew and presents the recipes all in Hebrew. You can download this book for free as a PDF from an Israeli government site.

I’ve never visited Israel, but lately, I’ve been able to live vicariously through Justin Jacobs, my friend who lives and works there now. Justin, a journalist who specializes in writing about music, enjoyed Ethiopian food in the U.S., so I didn’t have to prod him very much to visit Ethiopian restaurants in Israel and send me some observations and thoughts.

His first experience was at a Tel Aviv restaurant called Tewodros, where he had doro wot and two beef dishes, one spicy, one not. The food was capable, if not impressive, and the owner’s story echoes that of Chicago’s Zenash Beyene. Justin writes:

The restaurant, called Tewodros in English and Hebrew, is just off the beach in South Tel Aviv. The only clientele inside were Ethiopian. The owner told me he’s operated the restaurant for about 10 years, and he came to Israel in 1984. I would’ve expected him to say he came in Operation Moses, which happened that year. But he said he walked to Sudan, then was smuggled into Israel. That’s how most refugees do it now – get smuggled across Egypt then into the Southern border of Israel. The rest of his family came in 1991, which means they definitely came in Operation Solomon.

This was a good experience. They weren’t all like that. Not that Justin didn’t make it home alive from his next meal at an Ethiopian restaurant in Israel. But he might just have gotten lucky.

Kita fitfit in Israel  (photo by Justin Jacobs)

Kita fitfit in Israel
(photo by Justin Jacobs)

There’s a neighborhood in Tel Aviv called Ne’ve Sha’anaan, colloquially called Little Africa because it’s become home to many Eritrean and Sudanese refugees living in Israel. “It seriously is unlike any other place in the country,” Justin writes. “The vast, vast majority of them don’t speak any English or Hebrew; the park in the neighborhood is filled with a few hundred homeless guys sleeping every night. The Israelis still living there are in fear: A bunch of Eritreans broke into this elderly woman’s apartment and raped her a few months back. The place is a nightmare.”

Still, that didn’t stop Justin from a sojourn in search of food. Here’s what he wrote to me about his visit.

A friend and I wandered into the heart of Ne’ve Sha’anaan to find some grub and walked around looking stupid for a while trying to find a restaurant. The main strip of shops is a pedestrian walkway, lined with men selling stolen things on blankets. We found one restaurant, but there was a man passed out or dead in the entryway, and people were kicking him to see if he was alive, so we decided not to eat there.

Eventually found a place and sat down. They spoke no Hebrew or English, and there was no real way to ask them any questions about where they came from. The restaurant was also clearly just part of someone’s apartment; it was tiny. So I tried to order in words I figured would be universal: tibs, injera, basar (meat in Hebrew). The dude nodded like he knew, but 20 minutes later we had to re-order – they had no idea we wanted food. So we drank some beer, and realized it said “Made in Eritrea.” Then we looked at the TV – Eritrea Cable Network. We weren’t eating Ethiopian food at all!

I should have known better – the Ethiopians here are Jews, and they’re far more absorbed into society than the very new refugees and asylum seekers. Anyway, they brought us out some injera with a garlic veggie dish. It was good, but not what we wanted. The waiter kept bringing out this weird looking thing to the other customers (who, it should be noted, were all single males eating alone). We pointed to it and told the waiter we wanted one. Then we looked it up on my iPhone and it appears to be kita fitfit, bread strips marinated in spicy sauce with yogurt. It was so good!

Also of note: Ne’ve Sha’naan’s northern border is Menachem Begin Street, across from which are a bunch of skyscrapers and the national office of the biggest bank in Israel. When the sun is right, the bank actually casts a shadow on the poorest, most destitute neighborhood in Tel Aviv, possibly in all of Israel.

Justin has posted a much longer and more vivid account of his adventure on his own website.

The emergence of Ethiopian restaurants is naturally a phenomenon that didn’t come about right away: The emigrants had few resources when they arrived in Israel, and acclimation took time. Teff, the grain used to make injera, didn’t grow in Israel, so the new arrivals had to learn to make their bread with wheat until teff imports began several years later.

But there was another reason. In a 1990 essay on Beta Israel life after immigration, the scholar Daniel Friedmann found that these new Israelis couldn’t always get the things they needed to prepare their native cuisine.

“Even the culinary and dietary traditions that the Ethiopians try to maintain in their everyday lives are compromised by the emigration,” Friedmann found. “Many of the basic ingredients are unobtainable, such as teff used to prepare the injera. Wheat is substituted in Israel. Similar problems arise over t’alla, a home-brewed barley beer that contributes greatly to Ethiopian sociability.”

Since then, of course, many of the foods needed to make Ethiopian cuisine in Israel have become available and even abundant.

But in some parts of Israel, Ethiopian Jews still have a hard time getting some of the foods they need to cook their familiar or traditional meals. So in the southern city of Beer Sheba, located in the Negev desert, a group of people have formed the Kalisher Community Garden, where they grow peppers to make berbere, collard greens to make gomen, and Ethiopian basil from Ethiopian seeds. Unfortunately, the space and the climate make it impossible to grow teff for injera.

Finally, if you like to watch a confident chef in her kitchen, then drop in on Tesfanesh – a.k.a. Titina – and her cooking show on the Israeli Ethiopian TV channel. She speaks in Amharic, so you may not understand a word, but she’s a warm hostess, and the food looks great when it’s all done and presented on a piece of injera. You can find her videos by clicking the above link or by going to the IETV Channel on YouTube and entering the search phrase “The Wonders of the Ethiopian cuisine,” which brings up her videos. Each one has two recipes, among them shiro, dulet, kay wot, siga wot, doro wot, gomen and tikil gomen, familiar dishes eaten by all Ethiopians.

A NUMBER OF SCHOLARS have studied and written about the Beta Israel, and prominent among the contemporary ones are Hagar Salamon and Lisa Anteby-Yemini. Both have earned degrees and taught in Israel, and both have written books that explore Beta Israel culture, including its culinary customs and beliefs.

But before Salamon and Anteby-Yemini took up their studies of the Beta Israel, there was Jacques Faitlovitch (1881-1955), a Polish-born Jew who studied Ethiopian culture in Paris, and who became one of the great early chroniclers of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia. He studied at the Sorbonne under Joseph Halévy (1827-1917), another renowned 19th Century scholar who studied the culture.

A Beta Israel woman cooking in Gondar, and the kitchen inside her home

A Beta Israel woman cooking in Gondar, and the kitchen inside her home

Faitlovitch first visited Ethiopia in 1904 and wrote numerous books and articles about them. In his 1920 essay “The Falashas,” he described the Sabbath traditions that he witnessed:

The food for this day is prepared on the previous day, and from the setting of the sun on Friday to the following evening, they abstain from all work. The Sabbath repast is eaten in common [in the synagogue], this forming a part of the prescribed service, and rich and poor participate in it. On this day of rest and prayer they feel themselves to be in a paradise of purity and sanctity.

The Sabbath meals are prepared with more care, and in greater abundance, than ordinary meals. A special Sabbath bread is prepared; the entire community contributes to its preparation, and it is distributed by priests to those present in the synagogue during the intervals of the service. Persons to whom admittance to the interior of the synagogue is forbidden may not take or touch this bread. It is considered as an offering, and takes the place of the sacrifices prescribed in the Bible for the Sabbath day.

On this day, by reason of a special rite, they consume more meat than they do in general, and like all Jews they extract the blood from the meat and never eat it raw. They do not know of the prohibition against eating milk and meat together, and they feast sumptuously on these articles of food, especially on Saturday. They eat the meat cooked or roasted in butter with a highly peppered sauce made of powdered beans seasoned with spices. During their meals they drink, especially on the Sabbath, fermented liquors such as mead and beer made of barley or of oats. They never fail to wash their hands before and after meals nor do they forget to recite a benediction at the commencement and at the conclusion of each repast.

This beer, of course, is t’alla, and the spicy bean sauce sounds like shiro.

For Passover, Faitlovitch found, Ethiopian Jews abstain not only from eating leavened bread but from eating any fermented food at all. “Three days before Passover,” he found, “they stop eating leavened bread and take nothing but dried peas and beans, and on the eve of Passover they abstain from all food until after the sacrifice of the pascal lamb. After the sacrifice is slaughtered and roasted, the meat is eaten with unleavened bread.”

Some of what Faitlovitch observed has clearly changed: Ethiopian Jews now tend not to mix meat and dairy. Maybe contact with Jews outside of Ethiopia have taught them this custom. Or maybe Faitlovitch just spent time with a less doctrinaire community.

Less munificent than these two Europeans was Henry Stern (1820-1985), an Anglican missionary, born in Germany to Jewish parents, but who converted to Christianity at age 20. In 1862, he published Wanderings Among the Falashas in Abyssinia, in which he admits, “The special object of my visit [to Ethiopia] was he evangelization of that remnant of Israel, known by the name Falashas.”

At the time of his visit, some Europeans didn’t believe the Beta Israel existed. But Stern’s book assures them that “the doubt and uncertainty of the Jewish historian will in some degree be removed by the facts I have recorded.”

Stern visits a wide range of Ethiopian communities and cultures, finally getting to his titular people in chapters 14 and 15, and he confirms much of what more modern scholars found about Beta Israel laws and customs. At Passover, he found “the substitution of unleavened bread for leavened bread. These Passover cakes they do not prepare beforehand in the orthodox style, but each family bakes every day the quantity requisite for the household.” He has little more to say about food, choosing instead to spend his two chapters chiding the Beta Israel for not being Christian.

Wolf Leslau, the eminent 20th Century Semitic scholar, confirmed some of this in his 1951 book, Falasha Anthology, where he writes: “Throughout the festival, the Falashas do not eat or drink anything which is leavened or fermented or which has been kept overnight. They eat a special unleavened bread (qita) and drink only coffee and another beverage called chelqa, which is made of water mixed with flax or other seeds. They drink milk as soon as it is taken from the cow; once it is creamy, it is considered fermented and must be given to the animals or thrown away.” (What he calls chelqa is probably telba, a flax seed beverage common in Ethiopia.)

A poster for an Ethiopian restaurant  in Tel Aviv

A poster for an Ethiopian restaurant
in Tel Aviv

Another German missionary, Martin Flad (1831-1915), spent some time among the Beta Israel and the Qemant (or Kemant or Kamant) people, a Pagan-Hebraic culture in Ethiopia with some religions kinship to the Beta Israel and to Judaism. Flad’s 1885 book, A Short Description of the Falasha and Kamants of Abyssinia, is largely a dictionary documenting their language and vocabulary. But he does note this of the Kamants: “They eat every food from Christians, except the meat that has been killed on Saturday and bread, baked from corn, that has been ground on that day. The Christians likewise eat everything cooked by the Kamants, except meat that has been killed by them. This is owing to the different benedictions in the name of the Holy Trinity.”

Salamon’s 1999 book Hyena People looks at the lives of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, especially in their relations with the larger Christian culture. “To observe the laws of purity while working with the Christians,” she writes, “it was accepted that they would eat injera, fruit, vegetables and coffee together, but never meat or dishes cooked in the pots of the other groups.”

When Christians attended a Jewish wedding, Salamon found, the hosts gave their guests an animal, and the guests then slaughtered it and cooked it during the ceremony in pots they brought with them. When Jews attended a Christian wedding, the Christians would give them an animal a few days in advance, and the Jews would bring prepared food to the wedding.

In a 2011 essay about Ethiopian immigrants assimilating when they arrived in Israel, Salamon shares humorous food-related anecdotes about some of the lessons that the new arrivals in Israel quickly learned. There’s the story of some immigrants being given frozen chicken and told that it’s food. “We open up and see that it’s a rock,” a subject told Salamon. “We try to hold on to the leg and move it, but it’s all rock. We look: They told us there was chicken. Where is it? We waited and waited, after some time we threw it out, because it’s rock.”

When some immigrants found themselves in a home with two toilets, “they thought that one was for kneading dough, and the other was a toilet. They would put flour in the toilet and flush the water down and couldn’t understand where the flour went.” An immigrant man once went to wash his hands before eating some injera and ended up doing it in the toilet. “This is clean water,” recalled someone who had heard of the faux pas. “In Ethiopia we would drink water that horses had walked through in one direction and monkeys from the others. And that’s how he washed his hands in toilet water and ate injera.”

“We were so ignorant,” said another. “Everything was new. We brought flour from Ethiopia, and special foods from Ethiopia. We carried them the whole way, but when we came to the absorption center, we didn’t know how to use them and threw them out.”

“Never mind the things we had just encountered,” said yet another. “The very things we grew up on, how to make the injera, suddenly [the knowledge] disappeared.”

A child mistook a dark bar of soap for a piece of cake, and a group of immigrants mistook a white bar of soap in a plastic dish for qewe, a soft Ethiopian cheese. “We spread it on the injera and tried to eat,” he said. “We made bets among people. It’s qewe, it’s not qewe, it’s qewe, it’s not qewe, and we laughed because of this.”

Salamon’s 2012 essay “Meat Lottery: A Spectacle Moving from Ethiopia to Israel,” published in Hebrew, observes that “meat is a key idiom in the lives of the Ethiopian Jews,” who employ a “meat lottery” that helps to ensure “the egalitarian division of meat” in their communities in both Ethiopia and Israel. “Circumventing potential rivalries in their distribution of the meat of a single animal among several partners,” she writes, “it is connected at heart with the notion of sacrifice and transformation.”

An Ethiopian cookbook  written in Hebrew

An Ethiopian cookbook
written in Hebrew

In a 2004 essay, written in French, about food and religious identity among the Beta Israel, Anteby-Yemini notes that the culture ritualizes the consumption of meat and follows Old Testament teaching: They will only eat animals with split hooves that ruminate, and they won’t eat fish without scales.

The process of assimilation was startling to the Beta Israel. “These farmers from the Ethiopian highlands were thus one day transplanted to a very westernized urban context and faced the peculiarities of normative Judaism,” Anteby-Yemini writes. “Transformations in the sphere of food were profound, and the discovery of unknown food and forms of commensality were strongly disconcerting for them.”

Naturally, these tendencies were stronger in the first wave of immigrants than they are today with their children and grandchildren born and raised in Israel. In fact, Anteby-Yemini observes, “They make no distinction, and they eat both Israeli meat the meat of animals slaughtered by their parents. Young people of the Ethiopian community [today] do not feel the need to differentiate by the consumption of meat. They do not feel their identity as Jews or as Ethiopians threatened and rather adopt forms of differentiation based on their skin color.”

But even some traditions of the homeland causes consternation for the Beta Israel. Raw meat is a delicacy among Ethiopian Christians. It’s an abomination to Ethiopian Jews.

“As Christians, they are seen as ‘eating blood’ by Ethiopian Jews, who virulently condemn this dietary practice,” Anteby-Yemini observes. “As in other cultures, raw meat is often synonymous with bestiality or cannibalism, and its consumption by Christians is considered a transgression by Ethiopian Jews that justifies in their eyes the savagery and absolute otherness of Christians.”

In Beta Israel villages in Ethiopia, a house of prayer would have a sacrifice area where an animal would be slaughtered and ritually drained of its blood. “After skinning the animal,” Anteby-Yemini writes, “the blood is covered with earth, and the bones are burned. The meat is then distributed according to a strict hierarchy.”

For the newer generations of Ethio-Israelis, mealtime habits have certainly changed and expanded. But Salamon says that younger people still enjoy the comfort food of their ancestral home.

“I just heard from students of Ethiopian-Israeli families that when they come back from visiting home, they bring injera and wot for the whole week,” Salamon tells me. “Of course, they eat many other dishes, but their home food is still highly appreciated.”

Across the whole of Israeli culture, though, Ethiopian cuisine remains somewhat isolated.

“As to restaurants,” Salamon says, “there are quiet a few, but they serve mostly Ethiopians. Some of them are operated by non-Jewish Ethiopians here in Jerusalem, and I have not seen people from the Jewish Ethiopian community eating there.”

So for the non-Ethiopian Jews of Israel, it seems that Ethiopian food is a long way from becoming the new Chinese.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Watch a Beta Israel Gdeft celebration and the food that goes with it.

Watch two videos in Hebrew about cooking Ethiopian food in Israel.



Visit Habash Ethiopian Restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Here’s an ad, in Hebrew, that aired on Israeli TV for Dashen, a beer made in Ethiopia.

Watch a short documentary about the Jews who still live in Ethiopia.

Grand Ole Ethiopian: A Road Trip to Nashville (with stops along the way)

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AFTER A DAY OF FIDDLIN’ AROUND IN NASHVILLE, taking in some country music at the heart of it all, why not visit an Ethiopian restaurant? Or better yet, go to one of the city’s well-stocked Ethiopian markets and cook a meal for yourself.

Nashville has a diverse Ethiopian population and the businesses that go with it. There’s even an Ethiopian Community Association, created in 2001, and run by Yirga Alem Belachew, a retired registered nurse who now devotes her time to promoting Ethiopian culture in her adopted city. And there’s a lot to promote: five restaurants, each with its own character, and three markets with everything you can find in the big Washington, D.C., community.

Awash Nashville

Yirga recalls that Nashville’s first Ethiopian restaurant, Addis Abebe, opened in 1998 and was owned by two men, Gizachew and Esayas. Mesay Andaregie bought it from them some years later and renamed it Gojo, which still exists in Nashville, but with a new owner. The city’s second restaurant was Awash, opened by the husband-and-wife team of Gezahegne and Tsige. There’s still an Awash in Nashville, but it has a different owner.

So let’s begin our tour with Awash, the smallest and oldest of the city’s restaurants, now owned by Jemal Jemahussein, a Moslem from Tigray in northern Ethiopia. When I visited Awash, I talked with Zewditu Dullo, a Gurage who cooks at the restaurant – and who naturally boasts about her kitfo, the raw beef dish that entered the cuisine from the southern Gurage culture. For most customers, she uses already-ground meat for her kitfo, but when Gurage people come to Awash, she chops the meat fresh because that’s how it’s done back home.

For a tiny subsistence restaurant – Zewditu and I conducted our conversation over the blare of the TV, its volume much too loud for the space – Awash gets great reviews online. Zewditu has lived in America for about eight years, and her cousin owns Abyssinia, the restaurant just down the road. Both restaurants also offer catering.

Awash sits among a small block of businesses, across from a Taco Bell, that includes African Fashions, a Somali-owned clothing shop run by women with covered heads. These two neighboring cultures don’t always co-habitate peacefully on the Horn of Africa, but “in America, no problem,” Zewditu told me.

Abyssinia's Amharic Menu

Abyssinia’s Amharic Menu

Just down the road, at Abyssinia, its owner, Kebebush, is proud of her “100” inspection rating (I saw some 85s around town, but not at any Ethiopian place). This may be the city’s most “authentic” restaurant: The menu is in English on one side and in Amharic on the other.

The restaurant offers all of the familiar dishes, along with lamb dulet (tripe) and firfir (chopped injera) that you can have blended with oil or kibe (Ethiopian spiced butter). It seats about 20, but its tables spread out around the large dining room. At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, four Ethiopian men were enjoying a meal and some beer (Heineken, Corona, Beck’s – nothing from Ethiopia). Kebebush was busy serving them and didn’t have a lot of time to chat.

Slightly fancier is Goha, owned by Debere Getahun, and in business for about eight years. It’s located in a house that’s been converted into a restaurant, with a porch and tables still there in front of the building. The front dining room seats 16 around a collection of mesobs and one table, and there’s a private dining room off to the side that seats 20 more. A setup in the front room offers a coffee ceremony.

Goha also has a small market in the back of its building, and it sells everything from spices and legumes to jebenas (coffee pots), biret mitads (used for roasting coffee beans) and shakla dists (Ethiopian clay cooking pots). There was also some Ambo, a brand of bottled water from Ethiopia. But the market was dark when I visited, so I suspect it’s not the restaurant’s mainstay.

When I arrived in Nashville, I stopped for a meal at Gojo, which has a wonderful lunch buffet that the city seems to have discovered: The place was packed, with everyone enjoying all they could eat of misir wot, kik alicha, tikil gomen, kay wot (a beef dish, with the meat on the bone), rice, injera, a tossed green salad, and a fruit mix for dessert.


The restaurant put out lots of injera, but also offered silverware, and that’s what most of the lunchers used to eat their food. The patrons included a table of 10 businessmen, name tags dangling from their belts, five women ranging in ages from 30s to 60s, four Indian men, two African-American women, a couple in their 30s, and a man with an array of vivid tattoos. There was also a 20-something American-born Indian couple, both Nashville natives, the guy a Vanderbilt University graduate now living in Boston, the gal in medical school in Nashville.

Ahmed and Shemsia Maregn, Moslems from Addis Ababa, and Oromo by culture, opened Gojo in 2008. Nashville has two types of restaurants, Ahmed told me: the bigger ones, which focus on food; and some smaller ones, frequented mostly by Ethiopians. He doesn’t sell alcohol, although not because he’s Moslem, but rather because if he did, Ethiopian men would sit around for hours drinking and socializing, and he wants to focus on his food.

Gojo has two rooms, with tables and booths in both of them, and with lots of wall art like paintings, photos, baskets and cultural artifacts. The restaurant caters for several groups at Vanderbilt, about four miles away, and clients pick up their food in large foils containers. Ahmed came to U.S. in 2004, living first in Washington, and then moving to Nashville, where he had some family members.

He’s one of several Ethiopian Moslems who own food establishments in the city, which has an Ethiopian population that represents various cultures and religions. This, he says, can influence what you eat, depending upon where you eat.

Yirga Belachew

Yirga Belachew

“Ethiopian food is not standardized,” Ahmed told me. “With Ethiopian dishes, it depends on where you are, what your ethnicity is, what region you come from.” In U.S., filet mignon is all the same from place to place, but with Ethiopian cooking, spices and preparations can differ. “The one who cooks, if he or she has a specialty, you get that,” he said. “The best cooks are the ones who learned from their moms.”

I also had a very enjoyable lunch with Yirga at Mesob, where we talked about her life in America, and during our meal, her son-in-law happened by. Mesob has a big wide open dining room, a catering business, and right next door, Mesob International Market and Butcher Shop, which sells all sorts of Ethiopian foods, spices and cooking items, along with foods from a few other cultures, plus fresh meat at the butcher shop in the back. I couldn’t resist treating myself to some pottery: two tabas (small clay dishes), one for serving anything, and one traditionally used to serve kitfo.

The city has two more well-stocked market. At Merkato, you’ll find spices and legumes, including Indian chick peas, along with coffee and general convenience store stuff, like phone cards, luggage and detergent. The store also sells Ethiopian treats like kibe, awaze (a spicy simmer sauce), ambasha (a leavened bread), and kaka (a sweet fried doughy treat from southern Ethiopia), all of them made by Ethiopian women in Nashville for sale in local markets.

Goha's Market

Goha’s Market

The city also has a few Ethiopian woman who make injera for sale around town. Not far from Merkato is Hlina’s Home Cooking, a tiny cafeteria-style takeout restaurant that serves fried fish and chicken, with sides like mashed potatoes and vegetables. The owner is Ethiopian, and he makes injera for local markets. So does Zemzem Injera, where the proprietress has converted her residential garage into a professional kitchen.

Abdul Boulett, who owns Merkato, is a Harari Moslem who speaks Adere, Tigrinya, Amharic and a little Somali. He told me that Nashville has six mosques, and Ethiopian Moslems go to all of them because there’s no mosque just for the city’s Ethio-Moslem community. He’s lived in the city for 19 years, and before that, he lived for a while in San Jose, Calif., where he ran Abadir grocery. He left Ethiopia seeking greater freedom, traveling first to Somalia, then to Italy, and finally to the U.S., where he sought political asylum in 1994.

During our conversation, we were joined by Daniel Muleta, an Ethiopian Christian who shops at Merkato. A doctor in Ethiopia, he got his master’s in public health at Boston University in 1999, returned to Ethiopian for a while, and has lived here permanently since 2008. His father is Oromo, his mother is Amhara, and his presence at Merkato was further evidence that Ethiopia’s many cultures, often in conflict back home, can mix comfortably in the U.S.

Finally, there’s the charming Ibex Market, which bills itself as Ethiopian and West African. Owned by Ethiopians, it offers an array of Ethiopian items – all sort of spices and legumes, shakla dists, beret mitads, electric mitads (for making injera), rekebots (the traditional coffee ceremony table) and injera under its own label. The market also sells West African items like prepared fufu and cassava roots, plus CDs, DVDs, phone cards and convenience store items.

And for a special treat, there’s difo dabo, a leavened Ethiopian bread wrapped in koba kitel – that is, enset leaves, which add flavor to the bread. You can enjoy it with several brands of Ethiopian teas, like Wush Wush – all of which makes Nashville the best town for Ethiopian food and supplies between Chicago and Atlanta.


ON THE WAY TO NASHVILLE, I stopped for an afternoon in Louisville, Ky., to visit the city’s three Ethiopian restaurants, each one just a little different in style from the other.

I arrived at Addis Grill at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday to find a sign in the window saying that the restaurant was closed for the day because it had run out of food. That speaks well of the chef, but perhaps not the restaurant’s business plan.


I knocked on the door, and a fellow inside told me that the owner wasn’t there. It took a little prodding, but I finally got him to talk with me. And talk he did – with more of a political edge than his Nashville counterparts. He was much less sanguine about cultural unity among Ethiopians, and he wouldn’t tell me his name, so I’ll call him Ato M., where “M” stands for “mestirawi” (ምስጢራዊ) – which is, my dictionary tells me, the Amharic word for “mysterious.” “Ato” just means Mr.

Addis Grill is located downtown, surrounded by businesses, near the county courthouse, and not far from the University of Kentucky, and Ato M. told me that the restaurant often runs out of food.

Ato M. came to America 12 years ago from Enderta, a province near Lalibela in the southeast portion of Tigray, which is a northern region in Ethiopia. The restaurant serves Mediterranean-inspired dishes as well, although Ato M. told me that they’re not really as Mediterranean as they may seem. These are dishes eaten in Ethiopia, he said, using ingredients that we think of as Mediterranean. But it’s really just another Ethiopian way of eating.

“We have dominant ethnic groups,” Ato M. explained, “so everything that belonged to them is by default Ethiopian.” He was talking about the Amhara and Tigrayan cultures that created the “national cuisine” known to outsiders. But there’s a lot of food eaten by the many other cultures that nobody knows, he told me, and lots of dishes eaten only in certain areas. The restaurant’s Mediterranean dishes come from northern Ethiopia, and people eat them for reasons of custom and affordability.

For example, there’s mundi, stewed goat or lamb, not known all around the country, but eaten in the north. People in Endarta, the Afar region, and southern Arabia know this dish. The average Ethiopian does not.

Still, the restaurant’s menu has plenty of dishes familiar to anyone who likes Mediterranean food: hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, tzatziki, and lots of kabobs – all dishes so “American” now that I won’t bother to italicize them. The Ethiopian offerings are fewer but more than adequate: a veggie combo, kitfo, and a variety of chicken, beef and lamb tibs. You can also order burritos or quesadillas – not exactly Ethiopian by any estimation.

A “professional” Ethiopian restaurant, Ato M. explained, has mostly non-Ethiopian customers and makes its dishes to order with different spice levels. But at a restaurant frequented mostly by Ethiopians – in Washington, D.C., for example – there’s just one level of spice. In these smaller restaurants that serve mostly Ethiopians, customers tend to be of a particular culture, and they patronize the restaurant run by people of their culture. A lot of components of a dish can be missing in the big restaurants with non-Ethiopian customers.


“Everyone knows his own mom’s flavors,” Ato M. said, and every family may make a dish differently. So restaurants make it consistent for Americans.

Queen of Sheba, the city’s first and oldest Ethiopian restaurant, has been around for a decade and has had several locations throughout the years. One of those locations was downtown on 5th Street, just a block from Abyssinia, the city’s newest Ethiopian restaurant. In fact, Queen of Sheba once called itself Abyssinia, but they changed it, fearing it would be too hard for people to pronounce. The restaurant’s manager is from Nepal – there are no Nepalese restaurants in Louisville – and when I passed through Queen of Sheba, I chatted briefly with her husband, who also worked there.

Finally, there’s Abyssinia, whose owner, Mike Reda, comes from Tigray in northern Ethiopia. Tigrinya is his first language, so his menu says both timtimo and misir wot, the Tigrinya and Amharic names, respectively, for the popular spicy red lentil dish.

Before moving to Louisville to seek new business opportunities, he owned Axum restaurant for two years in Denver, a city with a lot of Ethiopian restaurants. His stylish Louisville place, with an adjoining bar, is located just a block from one of Queen of Sheba’s former location. In fact, Sheba’s sign is still on the side of its old building, sharing space with Shanghia Chinese Restaurant, which is still open, next to Sheba’s empty former storefront.


A FEW YEARS AGO, I passed through Cincinnati and had a meal at Emanu, the city’s well-established Ethiopian (well, actually, Eritrean) restaurant and chatted with the owner. So naturally, I wanted to visit Habesha, Cincinnati’s new place, and I stopped for lunch on my way to Nashville via Louisville.

Owner Bethlehem Tesfamariam is the mother of three, including a 3-week-old. And yet, she was on the job the day I visited, although only for a few hours because she needed to get home to her infant. Her daughter Blaine is 16 and in 10th grade, and she wants to be a doctor. She’s lived in America for four years, but she went to a school in Ethiopia that taught English, and she speaks her second language with no accent. The family comes from Addis Ababa, and they lived in Washington, D.C., for a while. But that was too expensive. So they settled in Cincinnati.

Habesha's beyeyanetu

Habesha’s yetsom beyeyanetu

Habesha is a roomy restaurant, with three wall-mounted TVs, one tuned to ETV (an Ethiopian television network), and two showing football (that is, soccer), a beloved sport in Ethiopia. The restaurant’s yetsom beyeyanetu was tasty and generous in its many vegetarian selections: fosolia, misir wot, kik alicha, gomen, salad, ayib (Ethiopian cheese), tikil gomen. Bethlehem makes her ayib with buttermilk (just like I do), although ayib on a “fasting” (tsom) platter, which is supposed to contain no animal products, is rather unusual. On weekends, the restaurant offers a full Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Habesha has a small bar with six seats around it. The place only sold liquor when I visited and was waiting for a beer and wine license from the state.

The competing Emanu is owned by an Eritrean couple and calls itself East African on its business card. I noticed that Habesha bills itself as offering “Ethiopian and East African” cuisine. This was certainly to keep up with the competition, although Blaine offered a more generous explanation: “The culture is the same, so that’s why we try to include everyone.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Visit Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant in Nashville:


Meet Ma’aza, an Ethiopian baker in Nashville:

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