Washington, DC is commonly considered the second largest Ethiopian city in the world, second only to Addis Ababa, and it's estimated that about 250,000 Ethiopians call DC home. Much of the influx of the Ethiopians in recent decades consisted of asylum-seekers fleeing civil war, but geopolitical implications of the Ethiopian presence in DC notwithstanding, their arrival has built up one of the city's most fascinating culinary subcultures.
With such a concentration of Ethiopians, it's no wonder that businesses and restaurants sprung up to service the East African expat community. Proprietors like Nafifa Said and Tefera Zewdie, owners of Meskerem and Dukem restaurants respectively, opened up shop in the '80s and '90s to fill the market void for cuisine familiar to their countrymen. Over the years, they and other business owners have created what may be America's foremost destination for Ethiopian cooking. Meskerem and Dukem are considered two of the city's best options; Ethiopic is the third.
These restaurants deliver faithful representations of Ethiopian traditions; you won't find contemporary interpretations or Ethiopian fusion at Meskerem, Dukem, or Ethiopic. Instead, you can expect to enjoy meals that may as well have been served on the streets of Addis. "I don't want to Westernize or water it down," said Meseret Bekele, owner of Ethiopic. "It's what we grew up eating."
Ethiopian cuisine is a communal tradition. Meals are served on large circular platters inlaid with injera, a traditional Ethiopian bread made with teff flour that serves double duty as both plate and eating utensil. The latter is of course because Ethiopian meals are eaten with your hands. Standard protocol is to tear off a small piece of injera and use it to grab small morsels of one of the myriad dishes laid out on a communal platter lined with more injera.
These dishes in question range from spiced lentils (yemisir watt), tender beets (kay seer), mild, earthy split peas (kik alitcha), and gently braised collard greens (gomen watt) to rich chicken and beef stews (doro watt and kay watt), minced raw or very rare beef (kitfo), and spicy sautéd lamb cubes (tibs). There are typically anywhere from five to ten dishes on a platter, all meant for sampling with a group.
Much of Ethiopian cuisine is characterized by its spices, and these dishes are often potently aromatic with significant heat. "What makes it different is the spices; we appreciate spicy food," explains Said. "Our food is seasoned with ground garlic, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, all different kinds of spices."
The master spice mixture berbere, consisting of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, dried basil, and other ingredients, is a unique blend that's a common component in sauces and stews that lends Ethiopian cuisine its characteristic heat. Another hallmark of the cuisine is niter kibbeh—clarified butter or oil steeped with onions, garlic, ginger, and sweet and pungent spices—which is used as a flavor base for many stewed and braised dishes.
Ethiopian menus look more or less the same from one restaurant to another, so if you're looking to spend time exploring Ethiopian cuisine through DC, your best guides are the proprietors who can direct you to the most distinctive items on their menus. That's why we visited Meskerem, Dukem, and Ethiopic, ate our way through the colorful painter's palette-like platters of spice-infused meats and vegetables, and talked with the owners about their favorite offerings.
Meskerem's interior is a cavernous space adorned with traditional Ethiopian symbols throughout its three floors. Since opening Meskerem in Adams Morgan in 1985 out of a desire to represent her culture, Nafifa Said is particularly proud of her kitfo. Kitfo is akin to beef tartare, but made with very lean meat and flavored with chili peppers, cardamom, and nitter kibbeh—a denser and more strongly flavored take on tartare than the French standard.
Said's kitfo is almost like a heavy pâté—creamy and rich with butter and spices with a hint of bloody funkiness. The flavor can be potentially too strong for newcomers to the dish, especially when raw, but intersperse lighter, sweeter bites of beets and yellow split-peas to ease your palate into this Ethiopian specialty.
Said also recommends a course of sambusa before a meal. An Ethiopian equivalent of a samosa, sambusas are fried pockets of thin dough stuffed with ground beef and chicken seasoned with spices-crisp and savory snacks. They're traditional in Muslim communities and often star as fast-breaking meals during Ramadan.
"I had a fantasy of cooking since a young age," says Dukem owner Tefera Zewdie. "When my friends and I would take trips to the beach, I would always make all the food." Zewdie made good on that fantasy by opening Dukem in 1997, first as a tiny carry-out and grocery before expanding into the U St. staple it's now become (and opening a second location in Baltimore). Dukem is also home to live music many nights of the week, but at its heart it's a family business that endeavors "to make it feel like home in Ethiopia."
To that end, Zewdie explains that Dukem's signature dish is doro wot, the famous braise of chicken and hardboiled eggs simmered in a thick sauce spiked with berbere. Wot is distinguished by the long, slow cooking process that reduces the stew almost into a curry with concentrated flavor. It's thick and spicy, a potent sauce for fall-apart tender chicken and floppy injera.
Dukem's chicken drumsticks drink in the sauce's rust-red spices, all fitting complements for the tangy injera. The hard-boiled egg becomes a flavor bomb of its own, full of pepper, garlic, and cardamom.
A relative newcomer to the DC Ethiopian scene, Ethiopic was opened on H St. in 2010 by Meseret Berkele. Tired of hiking up to U St. or Adams Morgan for Ethiopian, she brought the restaurant to the Atlas District. Berkele gravitates toward her lamb tibs because "it's not something you can find any other place." Tibs are marinated and sautéed lamb (or beef) with onions, garlic, chilies, tomato, and herbs like rosemary. They have a pungent sauce that clings to the meat rather than a looser gravy.
The tibs at Ethiopic are served in a stone bowl over a flame to keep the contents sizzling hot. The excellent combination of savory, tender lamb, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth tomatoes, and heat from the jalapenos and spices will have you mopping up every last bit with your injera. Small cubes of lamb mean every bite is saturated with the sauce and generously charred. A sprig of rosemary tops the dish to round out the savory, fiery aromas with a light herbaceous, fragrance.