Washington, DC, is home to one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the world, second only to that of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. While official census data shows that there are about 30,000 Ethiopians in the DC area, others estimate that the true number is closer to 250,000, many of whom came to the US as asylum seekers fleeing civil war in the 1970s and ‘80s. The circumstances of their emigration notwithstanding, their arrival has built up one of the city's most vibrant culinary subcultures.
With such a concentration of Ethiopians, it's no wonder that businesses and restaurants sprang up to service the East African expat community. Proprietors like Nafifa Said of Meskerem and Tefera Zewdie of Dukem opened up shop in the '80s and '90s to fill the market void for cuisine familiar to their compatriots, and neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Shaw became known as Little Ethiopia.
Over the years, they and other business owners have created what may be America's foremost destination for Ethiopian cooking. Sadly, Meskerem, one of the pioneering restaurants of Ethiopian cooking in DC, closed its doors in 2015, but new and notable Ethiopian restaurants continue to thrive in the District and, more recently, in neighboring cities in Maryland, such as Silver Spring.
The restaurants on this list deliver faithful representations of Ethiopian traditions; you won't find contemporary interpretations or Ethiopian fusion. Instead, you can expect to enjoy meals comparable to those served on the streets of Addis.
What to Expect at an Ethiopian Restaurant
Ethiopian cuisine is a communal tradition. Meals are served on large circular platters laid with injera, a traditional Ethiopian bread made with teff flour that does double duty as both plate and eating utensil. The latter, of course, is because Ethiopian meals are eaten with your hands. Standard protocol is to tear off a small piece of injera and use it to grab morsels of the myriad dishes presented on a central platter that's lined with more injera.
The dishes in question range from vegetarian and vegan specialties like spiced lentils (yemisir watt), tender beets (kay seer), mild and earthy split peas (kik alitcha), and gently braised collard greens (gomen watt) to meat-heavy preparations like rich chicken and beef stews (doro watt and kay watt), minced raw or very rare beef (kitfo), and spicy sautéed lamb cubes (tibs). There are typically anywhere from five to 10 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 common component in sauces and stews, lending 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.
If you want to sample Ethiopian cuisine in DC, some of your best bets are Zenebech, Dukem, Ethiopic, and Habesha (a casual takeout counter that doubles as a market for hard-to-find Ethiopian ingredients). At all of these establishments, you can eat your way through colorful, painter's palette–like platters of spice-infused meats and vegetables; talk with the owners about their favorite offerings; and partake of the traditions of one of the largest ethnic communities in DC.
Like the late Meskerem, Zenebech helped pave the way for Ethiopian cuisine in DC. Opened in the ‘90s, Zenebech was one of the first places in DC to make and sell injera in-house. In 2017, the restaurant relocated from Shaw to Adams Morgan, but was forced to close soon after due to a fire. Fortunately, it’s reopened as of August 2018 and is back to cranking out some of the best Ethiopian in DC. The atmosphere is casual, but with touches of traditional Ethiopian decor, including a corner reserved for ritual coffee ceremonies.
The menu doesn’t yield any surprises; it’s in the execution that Zenebech stands out. The spices in each dish ring clearly, even when the dishes are taken in bites together. The lamb goden tibs, in particular, are superb. 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. At Zenebech, they’re a feast of textures: lamb ribs, fried until crisp on the outside but still rare on the inside, paired with heat from jalapeños and sweet onions. And, of course, this veteran in the DC injera business still makes some of the best injera in town.
"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 it into the U Street staple it's since 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, Dukem's signature dish is doro watt, the famous braise of chicken and hard-boiled eggs simmered in a thick sauce spiked with berbere. Watt is distinguished by a 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.
Ethiopic was opened on H Street in 2010 by Meseret Bekele. Tired of hiking up to U Street or Adams Morgan for Ethiopian, she brought the restaurant to the Atlas District. Bekele gravitates toward her lamb tibs because "it's not something you can find any other place."
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 jalapeños 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.
Habesha Market and Carry-Out
Habesha Market is more of a stripped-down affair than the other spots on this list, but it’s just as worthy of Washingtonians’ time and stomach space. A combination takeout counter and market, open until 5 a.m. on the weekends, Habesha serves multiple crowds: cab drivers coming off late shifts, home cooks looking for Ethiopian ingredients, and those looking for great Ethiopian food in general.
Right inside the door, Habesha stocks a slew of ingredients that are key in Ethiopian cooking, like various berbere spice mixes, lentils and split peas, and himbasha and injera. If you want to try your hand at re-creating an Ethiopian meal at home, Habesha has you covered. But the full-service counter also serves some of the best kitfo in DC. It’s sweet and savory without being overly funky—approachable without being watered down. There’s also imported Ethiopian coffee and breakfast offered every day, all at prices significantly below those of other spots. If you’re interested in Ethiopian cuisine in any capacity, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for at Habesha.