Azeb Gide, chef/owner of the new Fairfax restaurant Sheba, wears her Ethiopian heritage with grace and pride. She translates those qualities into her sleek restaurant and its array of foods, many of which are dishes she learned from her family. "Every tribe has its own recipe," she said. "My husband and I argue over how to spice and prepare butter [niter kibe]."
Growing up in Addis Ababa during the Ethiopian Revolution of the early 1970s, Gide remembers the communist persecution of Catholics and other Christians. Yet her childhood yields fond memories as well, especially of eating with family members. "I was one of those picky eaters and I hated eating on individual plates, enjoying rather the meal shared on the communal plate with my siblings," she said. "More than the food, I enjoyed the stories and jokes my older siblings shared during these couple-of-hour-long dinners. I don't remember ever eating alone growing up."
What kitchen training she gained occurred before the annual celebration of the preparation of the Feast of the Holy Saviour in October. "I couldn't wait to join the ladies in the food preparation," she says. Cooking and home-brewing of the traditional beer, tella and honey wine always began weeks before the event.
On the day of the event, she says, several dozen ladies of the group would join her mother in the kitchen to help prepare the food for outdoor cooking, which lasted for about 18 hours. "I was always assigned to clean and prep the collard greens," she explained. "I loved being around these women, who would tell stories and jokes, and I can still hear their laughter. They ... took cooking very seriously. They would argue about spice preparations, when to add which ingredients while cooking, each holding their mother or grandmother as the ultimate authority."
|If you go|
|Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant|
|Where: 3900 Pickett Road, Fairfax|
|Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday|
But, Gide remembers, they all agreed on the correct way to cook onions: "It was like the Eleventh Commandment," she says. "They would criticize a meal they had tasted at events and they all seemed to pinpoint where it went wrong -- the onion was either undercooked or overcooked. And my grandmother would chime in, attributing it to being lazy. They made it sound like it was the worst thing that could happen to a woman."
That she now owns and cooks for a restaurant has left her mother puzzled. "Had a prophet from God told my parents when I was a child that I would some day open a restaurant, they would've had laughed so hard," she said. "Sheba Restaurant would've been to my parents what Isaac is to Abraham." And to this day, Gide says, when she heads to the kitchen, she always starts with cooking the onions correctly.
What is your comfort food?
Eggs, boiled, scrambled or cooked in onion, tomatoes and jalapenos, as long as it's not watery. There's nothing more comforting than being fed by friends and family.
What is your favorite ingredient?
My mom's spiced butter
Which is your favorite restaurant? Cuisine?
There's absolutely nothing like a good steak and mashed potatoes. I guess that makes it American cuisine. (This would absolutely scandalize my French friends.)
What is your luckiest moment?
The birth of my first child. It was like my own rebirth.
What is your cooking philosophy?
My father used to say that the poor cook to feed and the rich cook to show off. It's not easy to be poor when I constantly have to fight the ego. When you cook, think of feeding the person you love, and if you're a Christian, think of it as an opportunity to feed Jesus -- spices and salt will take care of everything else.
Gide says, "Messer wot is served with injera, the Ethiopian traditional flat spongy bread." (Note: Berbere is an Ethiopian herb and chili blend that can be spicy-hot.)
Serves 4 to 5
2 cups split lentils
1/2 cup canola oil
1 red or yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 to 3 cups hot water
2 to 3 Tbsp. berbere, depending on how spicy you like
1 Tbsp. minced fresh garlic minced
Salt, to taste
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
Wash the lentils in warm water until the water runs clear; this takes several rinses. Soak lentils in cold water until time to cook.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat, and saute the onion for about 5 minutes, or until it turns golden. Add half-cup hot water and the berbere, and stir. If it's too thick, add some more hot water. Cover the pot, and let the mixture cook for 2 minutes. Continue to cook and stir every 2 minutes, adding water as needed by increments of one-fourth cup. Continue for about 10 minutes.
Drain, and add the lentils, 1 cup hot water, garlic and salt. Stir well, cover, and reduce the heat to low. Stir every 2 minutes to check if it needs more water and to avoid burning. If the sauce gets too thick, add hot water, always by increments of one-fourth of a cup. Continue for about 10 minutes, and add the cardamom about 1 minute before the lentils are ready.