Ethiopian cuisine is unlike any other. Why do some want to modernize it?


Two summers ago, as part of owner Sileshi Alifom's ongoing campaign to refine his food at the white-tablecloth Das Ethiopian Cuisine in Washington, he attempted to create an East African lasagna. Semi-frozen sections of injera, the fermented Ethiopian flatbread, served as his noodles, which Alifom layered with a yellow split-pea puree, collard greens, red-lentil stew and a mild cheese, all flavors native to his mother country.

While unorthodox, the Ethiopian lasagna does have a foundation in East African cooking. Neighboring Eritrea was an Italian colony for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Italians, under Benito Mussolini, occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941. Italian food and drink left a permanent mark on both countries, one of the very few outside influences on cooking in the region.

Yet, regardless of its legitimacy, Alifom's lasagna did not set firmly, nor was it particularly pleasing to the eye. "It was delicious, but was it something that was usable and sellable?" says Alifom, who has a food and beverage background with Marriott Hotels. "When you started digging into it, the thing was moving left and right."

You might wonder why anyone would feel the need to refine one of the world's most singular cuisines, a spicy and essentially sweet-free set of dishes that are consumed with your hands, the tactile experience as important as the gustatory one. Chefs and owners have their motivations: They might be threatened by creeping gentrification. They may feel the need to raise the price of what some consider "cheap" immigrant food to cover expenses. Or they may just want to see the food evolve, as part of the creative process that pushes all cuisines forward, whether Spanish, Chinese or Japanese.

Whatever the reason, anyone who wishes to adapt Ethiopian food for a modern diner must confront the same problem Alifom did: Dishes such as red-lentil wat and split-yellow-pea alicha are loose and stewy, their wet ingredients hard to corral or, worse, potentially corrosive to inventions such as Ethiopian lasagna with injera. Alifom learned fast that to incorporate the flavors of Ethiopia into upscale preparations, he would need more culinary skill than he possessed. He would need a chef, someone trained to see a stew not just as a stew but as a combination of components that could be transformed into something altogether new.

Historically, such a person has been hard to find in - or even introduce to - the Ethiopian immigrant community in the United States. Most Ethiopian chefs in America learned their skills at home, passed down from one generation to another, and many of these chefs do not willingly share their secrets with strangers, other chefs or their own family members.

"Mom doesn't share the recipes. Like, the kids don't really know them. One knows, kind of," says Christopher Roberson, the newly installed chef at Etete on the edge of therapidly gentrifying Shaw neighborhood in Washington.

The "Mom" in this case is Tiwaltengus "Etete" Shenegelgn, the namesake behind Etete, which means "mama" in Amharic. She is the mother of Yared and Henok Tesfaye, brothers who co-founded U Street Parking and channeled their profits into a restaurant to showcase their mom's cooking. Stylish in decor but still traditional in cuisine, Etete debuted in 2004 in the 1900 block of Ninth Street NW, a strip that once sought official city recognition as "Little Ethiopia."

The block was actually not the first District of Columbia neighborhood to entice Ethiopians, who began fleeing their country in the mid-1970s, following the overthrow of emperor Haile Selassie and the installation of a military government. The refugees first landed in Adams Morgan, which soon became the nerve center of Ethiopian food and culture in Washington, a city that had long attracted the East Africans with its mix of political power and educational opportunities.

But like Adams Morgan before it, the Ninth Street strip eventually grew too expensive for the mom-and-pop restaurants and businesses that had helped make it a destination. So the Ethiopian community shifted its base again, settling in suburbs such as Silver Spring, Maryland, where expats continued to do what they've always done: cater to their own kind, in a region that can accommodate such radical movements. The Washington area, after all, has the highest concentration of Ethiopian immigrants in America.

This pattern of rebuilding a community in a new location has meant that Ethiopian restaurants have rarely been forced to adapt to new diners and new palates. The restaurants "largely serve the Ethiopian community," says Harry Kloman, a journalism instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, who has been researching and reporting on Ethiopian eateries since the early 2000s. "You go into most Ethiopian restaurants in D.C., you will find that most of the clientele is Ethiopian."

Besides, as celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson says, his fellow Ethiopians are not always open to change, perhaps a carry-over from their homeland, which has remained largely independent throughout its history.

"We're very traditional as people, Ethiopians," says Samuelsson, the chef behind Red Rooster in Harlem and Marcus at MGM National Harbor. "If you look at most other African countries, they've been colonized. So they were much more open to other things. We're not."

The Tesfaye brothers were determined to remain a presence on Ninth Street, even if it meant blowing up everything about their original Etete, including the prices, which now cross the $20 threshold for larger plates. They have essentially conformed to a neighborhood where one-bedroom apartments can run $3,000 a month and where the retail options run the gamut from an art-house movie theater to a grocery store committed to products from the Chesapeake watershed.

The siblings found inspiration in the work of restaurateurs such as Ashok Bajaj, the New Delhi native who had pioneered upscale Indian cooking in Washington with the four-star Rasika in Penn Quarter. "We're catching up with the neighborhood," Yared Tesfaye said weeks before the remodeled Etete reopened in mid-March. "We're trying to make it the Rasika of Ethiopian restaurants."

The new Etete would not just mimic restaurants such as Das in Georgetown or Ethiopic on H Street NE, where traditional Ethiopian dishes are presented in more refined settings, sometimes served on elegant plateware rather than gebeta trays covered with injera. Nor would the new Etete follow the lead of counter-service operations such as Ethio Express Grill in Silver Spring or the new Letena in Columbia Heights, places where diners can substitute rice or pita bread for injera, or cobble together a fast-casual meal that only passingly resembles Ethiopian cooking.

No, the Tesfaye brothers wanted a more comprehensive overhaul. They wanted a restaurant that pushed Ethiopian food into previously unexplored areas, seeking not only refinement but also, perhaps, a fusion with other cuisines. But the siblings, like Alifom at Das, knew they were out of their element. They and their mother couldn't create such a restaurant by themselves. They would need help, and not just the help of longtime friend Nancy Koide, co-owner of the restaurant SEI, who updated the interiors and operations at Etete.

What Yared and Henok Tesfaye really needed was a chef. Enter Roberson, 30, an African-American chef who grew up near Frederick, Maryland, the son of parents who taught him to appreciate hard work and a good challenge. Roberson is not formally trained, but he has studied under some of the finest chefs in Washington, including Cedric Maupillier when he led the kitchen at Central Michel Richard; Jeffrey Buben when Vidalia was still a viable concern; and Morou Ouattara when the Ivory Coast native embraced everything from African spices to modernist techniques at the late Farrah Olivia in Alexandria.

Roberson was not naive about the difficulties of his assignment. He was familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, both as a diner and as a cook who occasionally prepared the food at home. But he doesn't speak Amharic, which presented problems in collaborating with Shenegelgn, who has not mastered the English language. But perhaps most problematic, Roberson didn't grow up with the taste of Ethiopian food on his tongue. He would have to train himself to know when the flavors were right, no small task. 

Shenegelgn proved to be a tough but patient teacher, especially in instructing Roberson on the art of cooking Ethiopian vegetables. 

"She was like, 'You have to do the lentils this way, and you have to know how to make it,' " Roberson says. " 'We're going to make these things four times, five times. I want you to make it, and I want to taste it. I want you to keep making it until it tastes right.' "

Yet the chef was not limited to the flavors or techniques of Ethiopian cooking when composing dishes. The owners gave Roberson carte blanche to draw inspiration from his own culinary background. 

As a result, the opening menu at the revamped Etete reads unlike anything you've seen before in an Ethiopian restaurant. Roberson has created an injera taco, stuffed with doro wat, the signature chicken stew of Ethiopia. He's rejiggered the raw beef dish, kitfo, into a steak tartare preparation with injera crisps. He's even added black-eyed-pea fritters to the menu, for a taste of West Africa. Traditionalists need not worry: There are also a couple of large-format offerings served on a platter with injera.

Most of Roberson's dishes are small plates, borrowing the format common to countless restaurants in the District's contemporary, tapas-centric dining scene. Such plates may be foreign to Ethiopian restaurants, but they preserve, in their own limited way, an important element in Ethiopian dining: the communal feast. 

Roberson's dishes, in fact, are not far removed from what other chefs have created in their limited experiments with Ethiopian flavors. When Samuelsson opened Marcus at MGM National Harbor late last year, he had a pot pie on the menu. It was filled with doro wat, chopped liver and egg. At Merkato 55, his short-lived adventure in Pan-African cooking in New York's Meatpacking District in the late 2000s, Samuelsson served a rack of lamb rubbed with berbere, the nuclear Ethiopian spice blend. Likewise, on his menu at Cockscomb in San Francisco, chef Chris Cosentino offers berbere-spiced carrots with charred dates and labneh.

"You got to do it with a wink," Samuelsson says. "My aim is to make something delicious, not to be authentic. We're not in Ethiopia, you know what I mean?"

Whom, you may ask, is this upscale Ethiopian food designed to feed? American diners who want to try Ethiopian cuisine but don't want to eat with their hands? Second- or third-generation Ethiopian Americans who are not invested in authenticity? 

Kloman, the journalism instructor and Ethiopian dining expert, thinks such fare may alienate the very people who used to frequent places like Etete. "I think most everyday Ethiopians would not be the least bit interested in something like this," he says.

But then Kloman pauses and thinks about a strange phenomenon in Ethiopian restaurants: Americans are the ones who usually order the beers imported from Ethiopia, not the expats. Ethiopian immigrants apparently prefer Guinness or Heineken, which they view as status symbols.

So, Kloman reflects, maybe some immigrants would take a fancy Ethiopian food after all. "As a pretense," he says, "they might be interested."

- - -

Spicy Sweets and Green Beans

4 to 6 servings 

Marcus Samuelsson cooked this dish when President Barack Obama dined at the chef's Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. The spiced butter used here is true to the version made by the chef's wife's ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Gurage. You'll make much more than you need for this recipe, but you'll be happy to have it on hand for flavoring a simple baked sweet potato and all manner of sauteed vegetables (for starters). 

You'll need cheesecloth for straining the butter.

Ajwain seeds (carom) for the spiced butter are available at Indian markets.

MAKE AHEAD: The spiced butter can be refrigerated for several months. The berbere seasoning can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 6 months.

Adapted from "The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem," by Marcus Samuelsson (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

Ingredients

For the spiced butter

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1 shallot, minced

One 1-inch piece peeled ginger root, smashed

2 1/4 teaspoons coriander seed

1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed

3/4 teaspoon fenugreek seed

3/4 teaspoon ajwain seed (see headnote)

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

For the vegetables

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

6 whole cloves garlic (unpeeled)

Coarse kosher salt

1 tablespoon store-bought or homemade berbere (see NOTE)

8 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

1 medium red onion, chopped

One 3-inch piece peeled ginger root, grated or minced

2 jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced

1 1/2 cups water

1 or 2 medium carrots, scrubbed well and cut into 1/2-inch dice (1/2 cup)

1 tablespoon chopped chives

Steps

For the spiced butter: Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Stir in the garlic, shallot, ginger, coriander, cumin and fenugreek seeds, ajwain, black pepper, cinnamon and turmeric. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally; if the solids begin to brown, pull the pan off the stove top for a while. 

Remove from the heat; skim off all the foam and any floating seeds. Let sit for 10 minutes, or until the butter's milk solids have sunk to the bottom of the saucepan. Strain through the cheesecloth into a clean container with a tight-fitting lid, discarding any solids. Cool completely, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use. The yield is about 1 1/2 cups. You'll need 2 tablespoons for this recipe; refrigerate or freeze the rest for up to several months.

For the vegetables: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the sweet potato slices with the oil and spread out on a rimmed baking sheet. Scatter the unpeeled garlic cloves on top; roast for about 20 minutes, then transfer the garlic to the cutting board. Return the sweet potatoes to the oven and roast for another 20 minutes, until tender.

Place the roasted sweet potato slices in a large mixing bowl, then squeeze in the roasted garlic cloves, discarding their skins. Use a fork to reduce the mixture to a chunky mash, then fold in the berbere.

Meanwhile, bring a deep saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Fill a mixing bowl with water and ice. 

Add the green beans to the pot; once the water returns to a boil, cook for 3 minutes. Drain and immediately transfer to the ice-water bath. Once they have cooled, drain and pat dry.

Melt the 2 tablespoons of spiced butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the red onion, ginger, jalapeños and a pinch of salt; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring a few times, until the onion has softened. Add the 1 1/2 cups of water; once that has begun to bubble, add the carrot and cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until almost all the liquid has evaporated.

Stir in the mashed sweet potatoes and green beans; cook until evenly heated through. Remove from the heat; stir in the chives and taste for salt, adding more as needed. Serve hot.

NOTE: To make a berbere seasoning blend, combine 2 teaspoons coriander seed, 1 teaspoon fenugreek seed, 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, 3 or 4 allspice berries, seeds from 6 green cardamom pods and 4 whole cloves in a small, dry skillet over medium heat. Toast the spices for about 4 minutes, until fragrant. Let cool, then add 1/2 cup dried onion flakes and 5 stemmed and seeded dried arbol chiles. Grind the mixture in a dedicated spice grinder to a powder, then transfer to an airtight container; add 2 tablespoons smoked Spanish paprika, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon. The yield is about 3/4 cup. Store at room temperature for up to 6 months.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6): 230 calories, 4 g protein, 37 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar


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