According to the Ethiopian Embassy, 200,000 Ethiopians live in the greater Washington DC area. That’s about 5% of the population. Census data indicates only about one tenth that figure, but I tend to believe the embassy. You can find Ethiopians—and their neighbors, Eritreans—driving most of the city’s cabs, pumping gas, mixing martinis at bars, and running grocery stores, especially around U Street, breathing new life into an area that used to be known as Black Broadway before the riots of 1968.
And then there are dozens of Ethiopian restaurants. For this visit, my wife and I shared this plate at Dynasty on 14th Street NW:
I always enjoy the inherent communal quality of Ethiopian cuisine, thanks to the central plate. No need to ask “Can you pass this” or “Can you pass that” or “Can I try a little of that?” Everyone shares everything. If you can reach for it, you can eat it. The best part is that you eat with your hands, using pieces of the tangy ‘n’ spongy injera bread. Such a presentation brings you closer to those you dine with, as any good meal should.
For Dynasty, coffee is not a delivery system for a rush-hour stimulant. They roasted our coffee to order, for a half hour, starting with green coffee beans, on the stage where musicians would perform later at night, lending the roasting task a kind of performance status without cooking-show chatter. The resulting coffee had a pleasantly soft bitterness that didn’t require loads of sugar.
The next day I walked to 9th Street between U and V Streets, known informally as Little Ethiopia, although neighborhood activists are trying to convince the city to officially recognize the title. Here, most of the Ethiopian restaurants stand cheek to jowl, with hardly an Ethiopian grocery store separating them. I walked into one of the few food-free establishments on the block, Nahom Records, a basement store specializing in Ethiopian music, where the clerk lets you listen to any CD before buying it. A great service for people who still buy CDs, that is. Sure, you could find some, but not all, of the store’s selection on iTunes, but then you’d miss out on the store’s display case containing Lion of Judah patches, and its krar and other traditional instruments leaned against a corner. More ostentatiously, the store constantly pumps out 6/8 time Ethiopian pop onto the sidewalk, adding to the ensnaring East African fabric of 9th street.
Finishing up my East African tour of DC, I went to Khartoum, a Sudanese restaurant on U Street near 18th NW, where Al Jazeera was flashing the mug of Bin Laden, complete with self-satisfied quarter smile, on the television. The program then cut back to the female anchor, dressed in western clothing as if she were anchoring BBC news. On the other wall, a gumball machine stood by the door along with a poster for a patriotic CD recorded by American servicemen.
An equally intriguing contrast played itself out in the veggie combination I ordered:
On the bottom right, we’ve got falafel and tahini sauce that could have come from a Middle Eastern street cart. Meanwhile, a dollop of sautéed collard greens, in the upper left, resembled what might be found on top of injera at an Ethiopian restaurant. Sudan has as its neighbors Egypt to the north and Ethiopia to the east, and the mixture of items in Khartoum’s vegetarian combination speaks for our world’s often-apparent geography of gastronomy.
I didn’t understand the Arabic of the Al Jazeera anchors, but they seemed to be covering the latest news on Southern Sudan’s vote of secession from the mostly Arab north. I chatted with the counterperson, a Kenyan who was also keeping an eye on the outcome of southern Sudan’s secession vote because Kenya borders Sudan to the south. If the vote holds, as it most likely will (early reports put the YES vote at 99%), who knows—we might end up seeing a new East African county represented in the restaurants of our capital.