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Jerusalem’s Ethiopian Eats

Mulu can handle the spice. She smiles proudly as she pulls out a large green Ethiopian pepper and tears a chunk into smaller pieces.

“Are you sure you want to try?” the mother of two teases me in Hebrew.

She rips off of a bit of gray injera bread from the platter before us and uses it to scoop up kik alicha—golden yellow lentils—and adds a hunk of the kara pepper on top before shoving the finished product straight into my mouth. In Ethiopian culture, it’s a mark of honor to be fed. And in Mulu’s restaurant, this chef runs the show.

The sour, spongy injera mixes with the mild and melding lentils and the crunchy hot pepper for a deliciously flavor-packed experience. Mulu laughs as she sways her shoulders to the Ethiopian music playing from the TV, rips off more injera, scoops up more lentils, and goes for the biggest kara chunk. This one’s for her. A moment later her wide eyes are watering and she takes a big dramatic sip of Ethiopian beer. She repeats until the fiery pepper is gone.

“Here we call it ‘Addis Sababa,’” one of Mulu’s regulars, Danny, jokes to me. It’s a play on Danny’s hometown, Addis Ababa, and sababa, a Hebrew slang word with many uses, including to convey yes, cool, or great. He laughs at his own joke. “Addis Sababa.”

Mulu, the owner of Dire restaurant. Photo: Miriam Berger

Mulu’s restaurant and bar, Dire, is my favorite of the seven or so Ethiopian restaurants, and handful of bars and food shops now populating West Jerusalem’s city center. They are clustered around Jaffa, Agripos, and King George Streets, close to the main transportation hubs. Inside it can feel like Little Ethiopia and, for a moment at least, you are removed from this pressure-cooked city so obsessed with how you pronounce the h in hummus.

There are now an estimated 130,000 Ethiopians living in Israel, a majority of them Jewish and Israeli citizens. Like Mulu, most of them or their families immigrated over the past three decades as part of Israel’s push to bring in Ethiopia’s Jews living in hardship. Their status as citizens is different from the smaller number of Israel’s Ethiopian Christians, many who made the journey, sometimes via smuggling routes through Sudan and Egypt’s Sinai, to find work and opportunities, or to seek refugee and asylum status. Others came because Jewish family members already in Israel helped bring them over. In Ethiopia, religious identity was not traditionally defined along the same rigid lines as Israeli law.

Ethiopians are now a very visible part of the fabric of this contested city. But the cuisine, as food trends go, has remained largely off the map. In a way, perhaps that’s a good thing, leaving these spaces the way people like Mulu want them.

But for Mulu, there’s more to it than that. Mulu’s Russian-immigrant neighbors frequently harass her and call her children racist names, she says. And they aren’t the only ones. It’s no secret that some don’t like that her restaurant draws together so many Ethiopians to the neighborhood, or to Jerusalem. Mulu loves Israel, she tells me—it’s her home now. But not everyone here loves the Ethiopians back.

Mulu’s restaurant. Photo: Miriam Berger

Complaining, though, isn’t Mulu’s style. She made aliya—the Hebrew term for a Jew immigrating to Israel—nine years ago from a village near Harrar, an ancient trading city in Ethiopia’s east. Now she’s a Hebrew speaker. She lives in Mevaseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem where there’s an absorption center for Ethiopian Jews. Mulu opened Dire here on Havatselet Street last year, not too far from the Ethiopian consulate and a circular Ethiopian Church further, where on Friday evenings syncopated prayers pour out, often mixing with the city’s siren announcing the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Now she has two children in their early twenties and works long hours running the restaurant.

No matter. Mulu keeps the food at Dire fresh and flavorful, and the Ethiopian beer and music always flowing. She likes to project music videos of her favorite Ethiopian singers like Teddy Afro onto the restaurant’s two televisions. Late into weekend nights music pours into the street through the restaurant’s open door, which is painted green, yellow, and red—the colors of the Ethiopian flag. When west Jerusalem shuts down on Friday nights in keeping with strict Sabbath rules, Mulu’s doesn’t stop.

Inside, Mulu serves up staples of flavorful Ethiopian cuisine: platters of expanding injera topped with tibs (savory small meat slices mixed with fresh kara for a kick); and vegetarian favorites like atkilt wok (simmered carrots, potatoes, cabbage with a sweet-tasting golden glow), fasolia (flavorful green beans and carrots infused with not-too-oily caramelized onions), and not-too-sweet marinated beets.

These mildly flavored vegetables are the perfect complement to mesir wot, a spicy, hearty ochre lentil dish mixed with Ethiopia’s famed red-hot berbere sauce. Each region of Ethiopia has its distinctive dishes and tastes, but Mulu maintains there’re no big difference between Jewish Ethiopian and any other Ethiopian cooking.

There’s one dish, however, that Mulu doesn’t like to make: shiro, a magical mix of chickpea powder slow cooked with red berbere sauce. This golden pot of liquid is perhaps the most well known Ethiopian dish. But Mulu doesn’t like it. So Mulu doesn’t make it.

Shiro and Kara pepper in Bahir Dar Ethiopia. Photo: Miriam Berger

There are other unspoken rules at Mulu’s. You can’t pass by the restaurant without saying hello (she’ll see you, even if you don’t see her.) And then it’s best to stay for at least one drink. The bar is stocked with spirits like whiskey and arak, and plenty of Israeli beers. But the real deal at Mulu’s are the Ethiopian brews like St. George, known for their slightly sweet and bold flavors.

In fact, once you start looking, it’s actually quite easy to find Ethiopian beer in West Jerusalem these days. There’s an Ethiopian bar (no food served) on a side street off of Yafo Street, just a few blocks away from a shop selling staples likes beans, beer bottles, spices, coffee, scarfs, hair products, kolo (a dried grain snack), and a round contraption for making homemade injera.

St George, Ethiopian beer. Dave Proffer

Nearby, inside the famed Mahane Yehuda Market, where Israeli and Palestinian vendors hawk mouthwatering foods of all kinds, are three more similar stalls owned by Ethiopian Jews. At one shop, next to the stoop where old Israeli men sell used clothing, market-goers can buy fresh injera and, at one point, khat (or gat) leaves from Ethiopia. Khat, a mild stimulant, is legal to grow, sell, and chew in Israel, with a dozen or so farms, many owned by descendants of Yemini Jews, supplying the market. Now import of the plant from Ethiopia seems to have stopped, according to shop owners, and Israel’s Ethiopians must rely on locally grown leaves.

Some of the city’s Ethiopian restaurants will sell khat, but Kauayd’s does not. Kauayd is 49 years old and opened his Ethiopian flag-colored storefront on Agripos street this year. He’s a Christian from Addis Ababa and is now raising his young children here. His menu is similar to Dire, with a diverse Israeli and foreigner clientele, along with new and old Ethiopians looking for familiarity.

Kuayed prefers life in Jerusalem to Israel’s other major city, Tel Aviv; here in Jerusalem, he tells me, there are fewer drunks. It’s in Tel Aviv, he goes on, where thousands of Israel’s African migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers live, many in stark poverty. Now there are Eritrean and Sudanese restaurants that populate the area around Tel Aviv’s central bus station on Levinsky Street, nourishing another niche.

Injera at Habesha restaurant. Photo: Miriam Berger

Straight down Mordechai A’liash street and up the stairs is another Ethiopian restaurant with a balcony. It’s run by Abir, a 46-year-old from Gondar, a historical capital city. She is Christian and came to Israel 18 years ago, she tells me. She married a French Jew and stayed. Now he’s gone and she’s all alone except for her restaurant, she says.

The place is just one room, dark and smoky from a bubbling hookah. Abir’s offerings are heavy on the meat. On a Monday evening it’s basically empty except for an old Palestinian man who stammers in and speaks to Abir in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic. (He declines to give his name to a journalist.) He comes here because Palestinians, Jews, and Ethiopians are one, he says. And, he adds with a toothless grin, because he can’t get such cheap beer anywhere else on Jerusalem’s west side. Abir delivers the beer before he even needs to ask.

The deliciousness keeps coming. There’s Habesha restaurant with other Ethiopian vegetarian favorites like gomen (collard greens and spices simmered to perfection) and meats like firfir (shredded addictive injera mixed with sauce to soak up).

Then there’s Shejar, tucked away in an nearby alley. The head chef, Esras, made aliyah from Gondar ten years ago. Back then, she tells me, she prayed to God that she would one day have a restaurant in Jerusalem. Destiny or not, now she is daily popping out large platters of scrumptiously smooth and creamy shiro, said to be among Jerusalem’s best.

Back at Mulu’s, the restaurant is packed with regulars who are looking for the comfort of consistency. Avraham (Hebrew-ized from Ethiopia’s Amharic, Ibrahim) likes to sit at Mulu’s bar after work to drink and check in with friends. We communicate in a mix of Hebrew, English, and Arabic, the last of which he picked up while being smuggled through Sudan and Egypt en route to Israel.

Danny from Addis “Sababa” is tall with good posture and a steady stare that still easily breaks into a calm smile. He occasionally travels back to Ethiopia. In the meantime, he’s here alone in Israel trying to make ends meet in this land of that offers him greater freedoms and opportunities.

The three of us chat in the evenings about apartment rents, Teddy Afro’s music, the discrimination they face, and why I’m so strangely obsessed with injera. They don’t eat in the Arab east Jerusalem; the Palestinians aren’t kosher, Abraham insists.

Whenever there’s too long of a pause, or the conversation in Amharic around me seems to get too heated, Mulu interjects with a raised beer. “L’chaim,” everyone joins in. Danny’s face lights up. “Lutenachen,” they teach me. Amharic for cheers.

Cover image: Adam Dachis

Miriam Berger
Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist with a Middle East and Africa. Check out more of her work at miriamaberger.com.
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