Prior to this week, my only experience of Ethiopian food consisted of spicy lentil soup and injera, both of which I thought to be quite tasty and left me wanting more. Yet, I was intimated by a true “Ethiopian style” dinner, after all, rumor had it, these places make you eat with your hands!
I’ve long been curious about the Ethiopian Restaurant that sits along Colfax Avenue. The restaurant is merely blocks away from my first Denver apartment near Congress Park, so I’ve always known it was there. You simply can’t miss this place, painted like the Ethiopian flag in bright red, yellow, and green stripes on a busy stretch of road. The windows are blocked with color, leaving the restaurant even more elusive… (well, you can’t see in so what is REALLY going on in there?! Do they eat on the floor? Do they eat with their hands?)
Even when you first walk in the building, it’s still a little obscure. You come in to only three small tables and an empty bar area. Is this the whole place?, I wondered, nervous if my group was going to be able to squeeze in. But alas, walk in further, turn the corner and you see indeed, there are dining tables. Shew.
The menu is concise; simply entrees or sides. No appetizers. No desserts. No fancy wine list. In fact, if you order beer, the choices are simply “light or dark.”
The restaurant has been in this same space for over 25 years by the same husband and wife owners. The husband was our server. The wife was the cook. Fatouma shared with me how she remembered when this place opened all those years ago. It was the first Ethiopian Restaurant in Denver. The line was a half-a-block down the street, you had to call ahead of time to get a seat, she brought her kids here for birthday parties and holidays. This was the popular spot for everyone. Now, competition has grown more fierce, and Ethiopian food isn’t as much as a novelty as it was back then. Now, you can pick and choose where to eat Ethiopian food, this isn’t the only place in town anymore, but it has a reputation as “the best.” Its name “Ethiopian Restaurant” kind of says it all. It’s simple, but it’s authentic.
Our Global Grubbing guests started coming in, popping their head around the corner and picking a seat at our long table. As the dinner was served, each grouping of 4-6 people shared a communal plate, called a gebeta, that was put in the middle. The owner set up each gebeta with injera, then topped it with all the samplings and dishes for our combination platters. Dorow Wat towered in the middle, spicy lentils, potatoes and cabbage, and beef all abounded in front of us.
Luckily, our guest Fatouma gave us a rundown of “how to eat Ethiopian food.” Watching her, it looked easy, but I later realized it was an art. A gentle pull of injera, just the right size, a graceful scoop of food, completed with a swoop right into your mouth. If you watched those more experienced it looked like a dance.
A few rules pieces of etiquette when eating Ethiopian food…
– > Eat with the injera
– > You only eat the spread that is closest to you, you don’t need to reach across the table to other side of the platter
– > It’s considered more clean to eat with your right hand
– > Feeding someone a bite of food is a sign of love and respect
After all the guests wrapped up their feasts, Fatouma began to share her journey. While she is a strong woman full of smiles and humor, she has endured many hardships throughout her life. She never knew her parents, was married at the age of 13 to a solider, only to run away and become a refugee. It was then she met her second husband that brought her to America, who she is still married to today.
She tells her stories with great humor of how she feared the airplane bathroom, refused to step out into the cold Chicago winter upon her arrival, and wouldn’t put her firstborn child in a car seat when leaving the hospital. After all, these things aren’t the norms of a young girl from a remote farmland in Ethiopia.
What really touches me about Fatouma is her spirit and her great love and respect for Ethiopia and the culture there, but her equal and enduring love for America as well. “Without America, I would be dead already,” I’ve heard her say multiple times. “America saved my life.”
And it’s true, America did give her a second chance, but Fatouma had to take that chance and run with it and that’s exactly what she did.