How D.C. Became a Center of Ethiopian Food and Community

In 1978, almost 7,000 miles away from a civil war and oppressive communist regime in Ethiopia, a small restaurant opened at 4840 Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C. Under the watchful eye of the chef, Desta Bairu, Ethiopian refugees, students, and curious eaters could sample Ethiopian fare for the first time in the nation’s capital.

Cooking so far from home often becomes a negotiation. Bairu couldn’t get her hands on teff, a tiny Ethiopian grain used to make a bread called injera, so she substituted wheat flour. She left the dough to ferment for days in plastic buckets, hoping to imitate the tangy kick of homemade teff injera.

Until her restaurant opened, Bairu had been a cook for the Ethiopian ambassador to the UN, although she was actually from Eritrea (which until 1991 was Ethiopia’s northernmost province). For nostalgic diners of the diaspora, her food was the closest they could get to a taste of home.

Beyenatu, a selection of vegetarian offerings served over injera, at Dama Cafe.

Today, the availability of Ethiopian staples has greatly expanded. Daily Ethiopian Airlines flights shuttle passengers from Addis Ababa to Washington, D.C. Deep in the underbelly of those airlines, passengers of another sort wait to be picked up and ferried off — injera, teff flour, Ethiopian spice blends (berbere and mitmita), and more — the staples of an Ethiopian kitchen. Dulles International Airport is just a pit stop on their journey to their ultimate destination: markets, restaurants, and dinner tables across the D.C. metropolitan area and beyond.

Washington, D.C.’s Ethiopian community is widely recognized as the largest in the US — but it’s difficult to pin down an exact number of Ethiopian D.C. residents. In 2013, the official number of Ethiopians in the D.C. metro area was approximately 40,000, though the Ethiopian Community Center estimates this number is actually much closer to 500,000, taking into consideration the community as a whole, including American-born descendants.

Classic Ethiopian spice blend berbere (left) and kolo, a popular snack of roasted grains (right).

The community’s size and penchant for entrepreneurship can be seen in the Ethiopian Yellow Pages (EYP), which lists over 1,200 Ethiopian-owned businesses in the D.C. area. Yeshimebeth “Mama Tutu” Belay, an entrepreneur herself, started the EYP to vet and catalogue D.C.’s many Ethiopian restaurants, bakeries, caterers, and more.

Diplomatic relations had officially been established between the U.S. and Ethiopia as early as 1903, and by the middle of the 19th century, Emperor Haile Selassie was sending representatives to Washington DC and even urging African Americans to emigrate to Ethiopia. But the first real wave of Ethiopian migration came in the 1950s, when the city was still segregated, with the African-American community focused in the historic neighborhood of Shaw.

When segregation ended in the city in 1953, Shaw’s black-owned businesses suddenly faced increased competition since Shaw residents could now frequent businesses in any part of town. As a result, this prosperous neighborhood suffered economically, and in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination spurred riots that devastated the neighborhood.

Etsegenet Lulseged, top left, and Solomon Zewdie, bottom left, arrive for a church service at Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Church. [Photo by Matt McClain/For The Washington Post via Getty Images]

Still, during this time, many Ethiopians were attracted to D.C. because of its large African-American community and because the Ethiopian embassy was in the city. The first wave of immigrants consisted mostly of Ethiopian students coming to pursue college degrees, many at Howard University. The students didn’t intend to settle, though: They wanted to return home and contribute to nation-building in Ethiopia, but several years later, in 1974, the second wave of Ethiopian immigration was prompted by the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie. The coup ushered in a brutal 16-year communist regime, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam and a junta referred to as “The Derg.” The students who had intended to return after their studies now faced the prospect of building a new life far from home. The Refugee Act of 1980 enabled more Ethiopians to flee his oppressive rule.

During those years, the Ethiopian eateries in the D.C. neighborhood of Adams Morgan provided a gathering place for the displaced. Restaurants such as Red Sea and Meskerem opened in the early 1980s, following closely on Mama Desta’s heels. Soon, 18th Street in Adams Morgan was lined with other since-departed favorites such as Sheba and Ambassel. They offered Ethiopian dishes, often to the tunes of live Ethiopian music, which heavily features instruments such as the krar (lyre) and the washint (wooden flute). Even Mr. Henry’s legendary D.C. jazz spot often featured “modern” Ethiopian music.

Mengistu’s reign concluded in 1991, also the year that the United States introduced the Diversity Visa, prompting the third wave of Ethiopian immigration. Meanwhile, Ethiopian businesses slowly migrated from Adams Morgan to the U Street Corridor in Shaw. Many community members attribute U Street’s revival in part to those Ethiopian entrepreneurs that set up shop in Shaw.

For longtime residents of Washington, D.C., a saunter from Adams Morgan to U Street is an exercise in nostalgia. Red Sea restaurant is now a nightclub called Bossa. The beloved Fasika’s is now a bar called Grand Central. The 2015 closure of Meskerem’s hit the hardest, with one Washington Post journalist suggesting that the “neighborhood’s connection to that first wave of war-weary immigrants appears to be severed forever.” Even the beloved Zenebech Injera in Shaw, a stronghold that started as an injera bakery, has forsaken its prime location right next door to Howard Theatre.

The now-closed Zenebech Restaurant next to the Howard Theatre. [Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

Many Ethiopian businesses have migrated northward and southward to the more affordable pastures of Maryland and Northern Virginia, where most of the community now resides. A strip mall in Falls Church, Virginia, is representative of the diaspora’s new epicenter. There, the Build America Plaza features an awe-inspiring collection of Ethiopian markets, restaurants, and bakeries side-by-side, with signs in Amharic shining brightly above a packed parking lot.

Food is often the unofficial ambassador for culture, and those early eateries of the 1970s and 1980s introduced the national cuisine of Ethiopia to a receptive audience. Just a year after the restaurant opened, Bairu was feeding 2,000 customers a week. Washington Post writer Jacqueline Trescott described Bairu as “the mother figure who unites the Ethiopian eclecticism under her restaurant roof.”

Ethiopian businesses in Build America Plaza, Falls Church, VA.

That eclecticism is largely hidden by the average Ethiopian menu, since what is presented as Ethiopia’s “national cuisine” is based mainly on dishes from the north/central highlands. This belies the incredible diversity of a country that boasts over 80 languages and ethnic groups, as well as different faiths, including Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Protestantism, Baha’i, traditional religions, and a small Jewish community known as Beta Israel. The largest ethnic group is the Oromo, followed by Amhara, Somali, and Tigray; 43.5 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian while 33.9% is Muslim.

These different ethnic, regional, and religious groups have each quietly contributed to the great melting pot of the Ethiopian national cuisine. The Gurage, an ethnic group from southwest Ethiopia, represent less than five percent of the national population, but have popularized kitfo, raw minced meat with spiced clarified butter. Dabo, a leavened bread sold in Ethiopian markets, is eaten by Ethiopian Jews for the Sabbath. Ethiopia’s Muslim community has contributed popular dishes such as ful (a breakfast dish consisting of fava beans), fatira (a savory-sweet breakfast pastry) and sambusa (a crispy triangle of dough filled with meat or lentils). During the 180 compulsory Orthodox Christian fasting days, Ethiopian Christians must abstain from dairy and meat products, which means you can always find vegan options on an Ethiopian menu.

But when you strip down religious, ethnic, and regional difference, you’ll find that injera is a constant. A “typical” Ethiopian meal quite literally begins and ends with injera. Injera is essentially a thin, round, spongy bread most often made from fermented teff and cooked on a mitad, a clay disc. It is both a plate and a utensil.

Traditionally, vegetable or meat-based stews (wats) or sauteed meat (tibs) are ladled atop an injera on a communal plate. Most of the dishes are flavored with the spiced, clarified butter niter qibe or berbere, a dry spice blend containing chile peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, and cardamom, among other ingredients. Rolled up or folded injera is placed to the side, and the eater tears off pieces of the spongy bread to scoop up morsels of food, with the right hand only. The “plate” is eaten last, after it has soaked up everything else.

Mahaberawi with rolled injera at Abol Ethiopian Cuisine (left) and grains and seasonings on sale at Addisu Gebeya i d(right).

Thanks to daily flights ferrying injera and spices, you can now buy teff flour by the sackful in America. Teff is a nutritious gluten-free grain; its name is derived from the Amharic word teffa, which means “lost” — a playful reference to the grain’s size. The Ethiopian government still restricts the export of the grain itself, afraid that overseas popularity will make it unaffordable for locals. Teff is also now grown in the plains of Idaho, at a much lower elevation than its indigenous home in the high plateaus of northern Ethiopia.

Ideally, “real” injera is made solely from teff flour and water, which is then fermented. However, you won’t find pure teff injera made locally in D.C. — what’s available in markets is exported by Addis Ababa-based companies like Mama Fresh, which reportedly ship up to 4,000 pieces of injera per Ethiopian Airlines flight. Maybe it’s the altitude difference or the pH of the water, but the spongy bread just doesn’t come out right when made stateside, so flours of other grains — such as corn or barley — are added. Chef Mamo at Abol Ethiopian Cuisine compares it to the Herculean task of replicating the perfect New York bagel outside of New York.

Other concessions have been made to suit an uninitiated ferenji (foreigner) palate. The fiery spice of berbere is often toned down. Less butter is often used for health reasons. In D.C., niter qibe is made from large sticks of unsalted butter rather than soured cream. Some restaurateurs fear that the fermented butter might be too strong a taste for American diners.

Then there are bigger factors that, no matter how exact the blend of spices in the berbere is, cannot be replicated. Sociability is at the heart of Ethiopian cuisine; eating and cooking are shared, communal acts. Making Ethiopian food demands both time and labor, which can often be incongruous with the lifestyle of the diaspora.

A couple being served at the now-shuttered Zenebech Restaurant. [Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

Some of the innovations of Ethiopian food are also reflections of how food culture is adapted in the U.S. for what can often be a harried, lonely approach to food consumption. Silver Spring’s Ethio Express Grill is often referred to by Yelp reviewers and food critics as the “Chipotle of Ethiopian food” due to its build-your-own-plate model. Companies like Mama Fresh offer Ethiopian “snacks,” such as injera chips. For a brief period a few years ago, a company in Washington, D.C. called Zelalem Injera offered an ecologically friendly, automated way to make injera, using a machine. The machine, designed by engineer Wudneh Admassu, used Idaho-grown teff to make about 1,000 pieces of injera per hour.

The link between food and community, however, is still very much alive for Ethiopian-Americans. A few years ago, on the corner of 13th street and Otis Place in Columbia Heights, Kebedshachew Nani Girma spontaneously spearheaded a celebration of both. Nani, who came to D.C. in the early 2000s, owns a corner shop called Thirteenth Street Market, where she sells sambusas (similar in shape and name to samosas, but often with different contents) alongside household necessities.

She decided to introduce her Columbia Heights community to Ethiopia’s traditional coffee ceremony. She emailed her customers with the details: June 23, 2013 was the day. Her customers arrived, and a surprise guest as well: D.C. councilmember Jim Graham, who awarded her a commendation for the work she had done revitalizing the neighborhood, declaring June 23, 2013 Kebedshachew N. Girma Day.

Now, every June 23, Nani performs the traditional coffee ceremony. In her small Columbia Heights kitchen, Nani also makes doro wat for guests. Over time, she’s perfected her own culinary innovations and substitutions. It’s not quite like the doro wat she ate growing up, but it’s very close. Every day, new traditions are born out of the loss intrinsic to diaspora as Ethiopians continue to grow the community they have forged in the nation’s capital.