The history of the Ethiopian food scene here is a one-two wave in the 1980s—famine and war, says Kate Gibbs with Destination D.C., the official destination marketing organization of our nation’s capital. Ethiopians began to relocate to the D.C. area in 1974, first into the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and eventually shifting in the 1980s to the Shaw neighborhood and historic U Street which today is known as Little Ethiopia—and where you’ll find the largest concentration of restaurants and markets. Silver Spring, Md. and Alexandria, Va. have also seen a rise in Ethiopian population in recent years.
One of the beauties of the Ethiopian food scene in D.C. is that it is “still delightfully mom and pop,” says Gibbs. Although, that isn’t to say the neighborhood hasn’t changed through the years—it is no longer exclusively Ethiopian coffee shops and restaurants that you’ll find here.
One spicy way to learn all about the history of D.C.’s Ethiopian food scene, as well as sample some of the most popular Ethiopian dishes, is to take the walking food tour of Little Ethiopia conducted by D.C. Food Tours. You’ll learn a bit about the history of Ethiopians in D.C., as well as experience traditional Ethiopian cuisine.
According to D.C. Food Tours’ Jeff Swedarsky, some popular Ethiopian dishes include Kitfo (raw or lightly cooked ground beef, “raw is better,” dipped with mitmita, which is a very hot blend of spices); Tibs (typically beef or lamb, stir-fried and cooked with onion and vegetables); Shiro (lentils and a special chickpea flour that’s seasoned); and Gomen (Ethiopian collard greens). “All these dishes are cooked in a special clarified butter and eaten with injera, a spongy bread, that’s made with a combination of tef and wheat,” says Swedarsky. “Some restaurants make their own although most bring it in from local bakeries.”
Other popular dishes you might experience on the tour include deep-fried lentil appetizers, fresh cottage cheese, Ethiopian honey wine, traditional Ethiopian spices, meat and vegetable dishes, a Coffee Ceremony (coffee is a huge part of Ethiopian culture and espresso is often enjoyed ceremoniously after a meal), and the Ethiopian National dish—Doro Wat, a spicy rich stew with chicken and hard-boiled egg.
While there are a variety of meat dishes in Ethiopian cuisine, Ethiopian food is especially appealing to vegetarians and vegans thanks to menus that are rich with vegetable dishes.
One of the “old guards” of the Ethiopian scene in D.C. is Zewdie Tefera, the founder of D.C.’s largest and arguably most influential Ethiopian restaurant, Dukem Restaurant on historic U Street. The experience is a heady mix of incense, spicy stews like Doro Wat served with injera, and often live East African music.
Das Ethiopian in Georgetown is where you’ll find white table cloth Ethiopian cuisine (also one of two Ethiopian spots on Michelin’s 2018 Bib Gourmand list.) House specials include Beef Gored Gored (extra lean chunks of beef lightly sauteed in house sauce, and traditionally served raw or lightly heated) and Ethiopian Harvest Vegetable (cauliflower, string beans, and carrots simmered in stewed tomatoes).
Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant and Mart in the Shaw neighborhood is the other: Expect authentic vegetable dishes like Ye’misir Kike We’t (split lentils simmered in a spicy berbere sauce), meat specials like Chercher Beef Special Tibs (strips of tender meat with onion, garlic, jalapeño pepper, and herbs), and Ethiopian beers, too. Bonus: a market to pick up those famous Ethiopian spices.
Then there’s the next-gen restaurateurs. Etete restaurant opened in 2004 and serves traditional Ethiopian in Little Ethiopia (Etete means Mama in Amharic). Fast forward to 2016, chef-owner Tiwaltengus “Etete” Shenegelgn refurbished her restaurant and hired Christopher Roberson (who had worked for the late Michael Richard of Central) to revamp the menu with new additions like Beef Tartar Kitfo and Injera Tacos. And unlike most Ethiopian restaurants, you don’t eat with your hands here.
Another relative newcomer (by way of Toronto and NYC) is Hiyaw Gebreyohannes, who is at the helm of Gorsha Ethiopian Eatery in Union Market. The concept is an “elevated bowl” quick-serve spot featuring items like Injera Tacos and Yellow Fin Kitfo.
The Ethiopian influence is also present in non-Ethiopian restaurants throughout D.C. Kwame Onwauchi’s upscale menu at his hot Afro-Caribbean restaurant Kith and Kin in the new InterContinental Washington, D.C.—The Wharf, makes good use of berbere in his incredible fried chicken sandwich.
Header image courtesy of Dukem Restauran.