Among the many perks of working with a food magazine is the excuse (assuming I needed one) to try out new restaurants. I’m in the process of writing a piece on international coffee spots in town and, as part of this quest, I decided to try Awash Ethiopian, a hole-in-the wall gem where I think–I think–I may have just enjoyed the tastiest Ethiopian food of my life, and certainly the most authentic.
Before going, I had read that the little cafe was run entirely by one woman who begins prepping your food as soon as you walk in the door. Reviewers described the space is tiny, only enough room for a few tables, and over all very bare bones. It is also located in a neighborhood that would be considered obscure by many Nashvillians. Even so, every review glowed with praise when it came to the food and the hospitality of the hostess/server/chef, Zi*.
When we walked in Zi jumped up and immediately started moving toward the kitchen. She paused and smiled and asked us if we had had Ethiopian food before. “Oh yes! We love it!” She smiled again and started pulling out pans and ingredients. She didn’t take an order. She just went to work. We took a seat and watched her cook. The room was a little smokey, and we found out later why. We looked around at the Ethiopian tourism posters that lined the walls, and watched a little bit of the Ethiopian channel on the TV.
When she brought out the platter of yumminess I felt the grin stretch across my face. The stewed dishes were piled high on top of the injera, and the aromatic steam filled our nostrils. We tore off pieces of injera and started digging in, each bite better than the last. We had stewed beef in a mild berbere, yellow lentils, cabbage with carrots, fresh cheese, and greens. The greens in particular shocked me with their powerful flavor. I literally twitched with the fireworks going off in my mouth. It was just like that scene from Ratatouille.
Zi wasn’t finished with her magic yet. We came for the coffee, but what I didn’t expect was that she would roast the coffee to order. I watched her as she scooped raw Ethiopian Coffee beans into a pan and shook them over the flame. When they were finished she brought the smoking pan over to us so we could smell up close. “This is Ethiopian culture,” said the older gentleman sitting next to us. She took the pan back and set to grinding the beans to a fine powder. She then put the powder in a clay pot with a high spout and boiled the coffee over the fire. She brought out the pot on a platter with a bowl of sugar and two dainty coffee cups. Though I feared the coffee would be very smokey and burnt, given the method of roasting, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The flavor was wonderfully smooth and not overly bitter. The coffee was strong and earthy, and with the sugar added it reminded me of chocolate and cinnamon, even though neither were present.
I just sat there shaking my head and smiling. That might have just been the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had.
Go figure…Nashville, of all places.
*Zi is her name, but I don’t know if that is how it is spelled. 😦