THE HEART OF ETHIOPIAN FOOD AND CULTURE in Ohio is neither of the state’s two largest metropolitan areas, Cincinnati or Cleveland, each of which has only one Ethiopian restaurant (actually, in Cincinnati, it’s Eritrean), and most of whose residents live in the suburbs.

For the best Ethiopian experience in Ohio, you need to visit Columbus, with a mere 1.8 million people – and with a wide range of restaurants and markets for the Ethiopian gourmand.

But if you make the trip, you’ll need to be sensitive to how you define “Ethiopian.”

Since Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1994, the two countries have continued to engage in border wars, usually small but sometimes heavily armed. Meanwhile, within Ethiopia, the majority Oromo culture has long felt oppressed by the ruling Amhari-Tigrayan government, and some activists want Oromia to become an independent country. The northern regions of Ethiopia are dominated by Tigrayan culture and language, while the center is more Amhara.

In Columbus, you’ll find a community whose neo-American entrepreneurs reflect these cultures and some of their political conflicts, which are still widespread in the homelands they left behind. The city’s “Ethiopian” community has significant elements of all three cultures, or nationalities, as Eritreans and especially Oromos prefer to say: Its numerous restaurants and businesses are owned by Amharas, Eritreans and Oromos.

There’s also a sizable Somali population in Columbus – the second largest in the United States, a Somali organization reports – and some of the Somali-owned restaurants in town serve a few dishes that border on Ethiopian cuisine, just as the two countries border each other. Ethiopia’s disputed and drought-ravaged eastern Ogaden region is ethnically Somali.

Ask an Oromo in Columbus if he’s Ethiopian, and after a pause, he’ll give you one of two answers: “I’m Oromo,” or, “No, I’m Oromo.” The former answer is the polite response, the latter more emotional and aggrieved.

That’s some of what I discovered when I visited Columbus in 2009 for my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., and I share more of the experience in the book. I returned to Columbus in August 2012 to buy some injera and spices and to see what’s new.

I didn’t talk politics this time, but outside of Awash Enjera, a bakery and market owned by Oromos, a young Oromo woman summed up the diverse community this way: “In their businesses, they get along, but if you get to politics, they don’t get along.”

To the degree that these cultural issues divide the business community, the biggest division is probably the one between the Oromos and everyone else. At Lalibela, owned by Ethiopians, and at Selam Olympic, owned by Eritreans, all of the dishes on each restaurant’s menu appear in three languages: English, transliterated Amharic, and transliterated Tigrinya. This invites three cultures to order in their own languages. It leaves Oromos nowhere to dine but at home.

It’s not that Oromos don’t know two or even all three of those languages. It’s just that some would rather not patronize restaurants owned by people from cultures against whom they have such a painful and long-standing grievance. Fortunately, there are Oromo-owned restaurants: Right next to Awash Enjera is Awash Café.

But politics aside, Columbus does have a booming community, and on my August trip, I did my shopping at Dire Dawa, a magnificently stocked place with some items that I’ve never seen in an Ethiopian market, even in Washington, D.C.
The city’s Ethiopian community (I’ll use that term generically) is relatively new, and it grew quickly, dwarfing nearby metropolitan areas like Cleveland to the north and Pittsburgh to the east.

Ambo mineral water
at Lalibela Market

In 1994, the city got its first restaurant thanks to Tekle Beyene, who bought a building that had housed a French restaurant and turned it into Ethiopian-Eritrean Cuisine. The place did well, his customers liked the food, and he got a good review in the newspaper. But the restaurant shared space with his other business, a small convenience store, and in 1996, he decided to close the restaurant and just operate his A&B Market. We talked about his history in 2009, but this summer, A&B was under new, non-Ethiopian ownership.

You’ll find most of the Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants and markets in Whitehall, a south-east suburb of Columbus. There are half a dozen or so restaurants – as always in this perilous business, places open and close regularly – and about the same number of markets, most of them within a several-mile radius of each other.

This doesn’t begin to tally up the many places, especially convenience stores, that are owned by Ethiopians but that don’t sell Ethiopian foods. There’s also Blue Nile, located north of center city, right by Ohio State University, which gives the place a different atmosphere and clientele than the Whitehall restaurants.

Some of the Whitehall places are in clusters. At the 1400 block of South Hamilton Road, you’ll find a plaza of shops with two restaurants, two markets and an injera bakery. A few blocks down the street, there’s another restaurant next to a market.

These businesses come in all sizes, with proprietors of all cultures. But the menus at Selam and Lalibela, just a few blocks from each other along an unguarded border on South Hamilton Road, nicely illustrate the interplay of politics and business.

A meal at Dukem

At the plaza that hosts Selam, Mihret Brhane’s One Stop Market has the number “1” in Amharic on its marquee and business card, but only the card says “Meskerem,” the first month of the Ethiopian calendar, in Amharic. The vivacious young businesswoman has two shelves of Ethiopian foods and household goods along with other standard convenience store items. She’s Eritrean, and unconcerned with politics, focusing instead on business and good cheer when customers enter her store.

Ashe Bekele’s Addisu Bakery & Carry Out sells its own brand-name injera exclusively at its shop. “We make it and we sell it here,” brags the company’s business card. Ashe, who’s from Addis Ababa, opened the shop in 2008. Not too far away, Walt’s Carry Out sells Ethiopian wines, spices and several brands of injera. In Amharic on its window are the transliterated American words “Walt’s Grocery.”

I had lunch this summer at Dukem, one of the city’s newer restaurants. Its menu uses mostly Amharic names for its dishes, but I noticed that the place offers several versions of kulwa, the Tigrinya name for what Amharic calls wot (spicy, juicy stews made with berbere). So are the owners Eritrean or from northern, Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopia? The presence of so much Amharic suggested the latter, and my server confirmed my suspicion.

Dukem is a diverse place: There’s a restaurant, a bar, a lounge area with tables surrounded by cushioned chairs, a small corner stage for performing the coffee ceremony and where bands play, and two pool tables against the far wall. The menu is just as varied: In addition to a wide range of Ethiopian dishes, you can enjoy chicken alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs, rigatoni, steak and spaghetti, as well as pizza, a tibs sandwich and a Philly cheesesteak. Some of this reflects the Italian colonial influence in Eritrea, which spilled over into northern Tigrinya-speaking Ethiopia. For breakfast, the restaurant offers geat/genfo: The former is the Tigryina name for this wheat porridge, the latter is the Amharic name. (My Recipes page will tell you how to prepare it.)

For lunch, I had a combination platter with a spicy beef kulwa and five veggie selections. Some of the dishes were tasty, some a bit bland, and although I enjoyed my meal, I wouldn’t recommend Dukem until I’ve tried a few other restaurants in the city.

Spices at Dire Dawa Market
(click to enlarge)

At Dire Dawa market, I was almost overwhelmed by the selection of Ethiopian foods and spices: The shop even had helbet, a fine powder of lentils and fava beans used to make a shiro-like puree. The name is Tigrinya, and it’s largely a northern dish – called elbet in Amharic – served during religious fasting seasons to increase the variety of vegetarian offerings. As always with words in Amharic or Tigrinya, transliteration is difficult, so you might also see it called hilbet or hulbet. In Toronto this past summer, I visited two restaurants that made hulbat marakh, a meaty version of helbet that’s popular in the heavily Moslem city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia

While shiro is easy to make, helbet is harder, two young Ethiopians told me at the shop when I chatted with them. But they couldn’t quite tell me why it’s harder, perhaps because their English was hesitant, but more likely because they weren’t the cooks in their households growing up.

Dire Dawa offers an unusual snack item. The shop sells dabo kolo, which is not unusual: Many markets sell these small golden pieces of pan-fried bread that Ethiopians like to nibble. But right next to the dabo kolo were larger pieces of fried bread (see photo below). I asked the shop’s owner, Dika Edin, what they were called, and three times he said kaka. A few other Ethiopian friends I asked later said they’d never heard of this. But several weeks after my visit to Columbus, I found a recipe for kaka in one of my Amharic-language cookbooks, which describes it as a “Somali biscuit.” It’s now apparently spread to Ethiopian culture as well.

Dika’s market sells many varieties of injera made by members of the city’s Ethiopian community, each with a brand name and a label. I wasn’t sure which one to choose, so I asked Dika, an Oromo from Dire Dawa. He recommended Awash Enjera, a local bakery owned by Oromos. Family loyalty, you could say. I also bought a package of Nitshite Injera, a pure teff variety made by the market itself. It’s a little more expensive but worth it for the taste and the experience.

“Kaka” at Dire Dawa

The market also has a butcher shop and all kinds of goods you’d find at any convenience store. But its mainstay seems to be its Ethiopian spices and other cultural foods, with much of it packaged in Ethiopia and imported for sale here – a cornucopia of offerings for the Ethiopian chef.

As for the Somali places: I made the mistake of visiting Columbus in August during Ramadan, so the restaurants were closed during the day when I was in town. Some of them are all Somali, but some offer a few Ethiopian dishes on anjero, the Somali word for injera. Many of these places are located along or near Cleveland Avenue on the city’s north side, about 10 miles from the Whitehall Ethiopian community.

At the stylish Solay Bistro, you’ll find a “mixed platter on Ethiopian anjero” that includes “choice of two vegetables and a meat (chicken, goat or fish) served with a house salad.” It looks just like a typical Ethiopian meal. There’s also Somalia and Ethiopia Restaurant, a smaller place with no website of its own, located not far from Solay, and once again, with a menu that mixes these neighboring cuisines, but with an emphasis on Somali dishes.

These businesses all co-exist well, and to the degree that people who aren’t of their cultures patronize them, the food is authentic and politics-free. But after hours is another story.

When I met Tekle Beyene, the city’s pioneering restaurateur, and an Eritrean, in 2009, he wasn’t easy on his homeland’s oppressive government. He also was more hopeful about the prospect for reconciliation among the communities in America. He dreamed of a democratic Eritrea with closer ties to Ethiopia and other neighboring African countries, and he wanted to see the government develop its economy and help the masses the way he sees the Ethiopian government doing.

“There is always politics, but the people are very close to each other,” he said. “We are tied to the same culture and history. We are intermingled with blood and relations. Eritreans are hard-working people. That wouldn’t be a problem if they had the opportunity. But all the government wants is war. You don’t benefit from two countries fighting.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh