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.