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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.”
University of Pittsburgh
Visit Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant in Nashville:
Meet Ma’aza, an Ethiopian baker in Nashville: