Ethiopian dishes add spice to nation’s capital

Little Ethiopia Restaurant - U Street Corridor - Washington, DC
Little Ethiopia Restaurant - U Street Corridor - Washington, DC

By Gabriella Boston, Washington Times,  Wednesday, 04 November 2009

The District has moved well beyond its old reputation as the capital of bland meat-and-potatoes dining, but it’s still not known for its ethnic cuisines. That misperception needs to change, says Jeff Swedarsky, director of DC Metro Food Tours(www.dcmetrofood

Take Ethiopian cuisine. The metro area boasts at least three dozen Ethiopian restaurants — more than in any other metro area in the country. According to the Embassy of Ethiopia, more than 100,000 Ethiopians live in the area.

So DC Metro Food Tours last week offered its first Little Ethiopia tour.

“The Ethiopian community here is the biggest in the country, and the restaurants are amazing,” says the high-energy, late-20s Mr. Swedarsky while walking up Ninth Street Northwest toward the intersection with U Street — the epicenter of the local Ethiopian community — on a recent rainy-day tour. “We want to convey that.”

It seems he and his two tour guides, Sarah Parker and Natalie Kaften, have succeeded in doing just that. The five tour-takers are all smiles as they experience everything from kitfo (spicy raw beef) to injera (the cuisine’s ubiquitous spongy flatbread) at five different but proximal restaurants featured on the tour, which costs $50 per person and takes up to four hours.

“This is awesome,” says Michelle Early, a self-described foodie and veteran food-tour-taker. “[Without the tour] I would never have walked into these places. But now I’ll feel comfortable bringing friends here. And I’ll know what to order.”

For example, Ms. Early has learned to order the delicious sambusas — triangular pastries filled with beef or lentils — served at Little Ethiopia restaurant, the tour’s second stop. Tour-takers also experience a traditional coffee ceremony there in a setting reminiscent of traditional hut homes: Circular straw roofs and lanterns hang over each table; the tables and chairs are low; intricate wood carvings hang on the walls.

“I need to pace myself,” Ms. Early says as she enjoys the sambusas, which are similar to samosas but much bigger and more filling.

That’s right; there are another three restaurants to go, and Ethiopian food is delightfully full of butter; spices, such as chilies, garlic and cardamom; and injera, which tends to swell in the stomach.

But before the group heads to the next stop, all are treated to Ethiopian coffee, roasted and served by waitress Halen Taddese, who’s dressed in traditional garb. Her white dress (habesha qemis) is made of wide cotton strips (shemma) sewn together and embroidered at the collar and around the waist and hem with the colors of Ethiopia: green, red and yellow.

After Ms. Taddese, who sits on a small wooden stool close to the floor, has roasted the beans – using a small electric burner and pan – she walks up to each guest so he or she can enjoy the coffee’s fragrance.

“The smoke from the coffee beans is considered a blessing,” says guide Sarah Parker.

On that note, it’s time to leave Little Ethiopia — which carries the name many Ethiopians would like the city to give to this area of U and Ninth streets in the Shaw neighborhood; they have failed so far to persuade politicians and many longtime residents, who favor names such as “Black Broadway” — and head to the other restaurants and a surprise visit to an Ethiopian record-CD store, Nahom Records.

In the end, the tour is as much about Ethiopian culture in general as it is about its cuisine in particular. That is as it should be, Ms. Early says.

“There’s no way you walk away from this tour without having gained a greater appreciation for the Ethiopian community,” she says.

Adds Mr. Swedarsky: “I think the Ethiopian community is overlooked a little. These are some of the hardest-working entrepreneurs I’ve ever seen. They’re living the American dream, and we’re benefiting from it. They’re part of what makes D.C. special.”

And yummy.