If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered how “authentic” some ethnic cuisine in America truly is. For example, is Panda Express poorly done Chinese food, or is it just cultural appropriation? Well, I went on an investigation to find out about one of Ithaca’s own!
Hawi Ethiopian Cuisine is a small restaurant located on 113 S Cayuga St. down by the Commons, self-described as a “quaint, mom-&-pop eatery featuring a variety of traditional Ethiopian plates in a laid-back setting.” But just how authentic is the food? I went to eat with one of my friends Sam Belete ’22, an Ethiopian, to find out.
As we walked in, I immediately noticed the festive and handmade-looking decor that included some woven designs, a set of warrior masks ferociously glaring as you walk back to the bathroom, a number of colorful paintings highlighting Ethiopia’s background and an aroma of tumeric and chilies. It was around 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, and with only one family eating in the back, we sat ourselves at a table for two by the window. Now, here is where the “traditional” became apparent: our table was set with no silverware. None need though, as Ethiopian meals are typically eaten with your right hand, an experience I was anxious to try out.
Upon first opening the menu, I conveniently found a glossary to guide me through the maze of new words — which, though initially useful, shouldn’t make you shy to ask the waiters. From my experience, they were very knowledgeable about which dishes will suit your spice palate or dietary restrictions.
After an initial glance, Belete recognized all of the plates listed on the menu. Off to a good start. But next came the true challenge: whether or not they tasted as they did back home. To explore a little more of what this place had to offer, I decided to order the meat combo ($22 after tax and tip) that came with two choices of meat dishes and three veggies, a decision which I left to Belete’s expertise.
1) Tibs wat — “Prime beef cooked in specially seasoned Berbere sauce.” For being described as a “spicy stew,” I was greatly underwhelmed by the lack of heat in the dish. That being said, the beef was tender and well seasoned otherwise.
2) Yebeg alicha — “Mild lamb stew delicately seasoned with garlic, ginger and turmeric.” This dish had a beautiful savoriness that came from the rendered lamb fat that mixed heavenly with the light yet aromatic turmeric-based sauce.
1) Misir wat — “Split red lentils simmered in red pepper sauce.” This, similar to the tibs wat, was severely lacking in heat, and the lentils were a little underdone. Belete herself said, “It wasn’t as spicy as I am used to, and the tomato paste they used overpowered everything else.”
2) Gomen — “Collard greens seasoned with fresh garlic and ginger.” When I saw this mass of chopped and wilted greens that resembled a seaweed salad on my plate, I asked Belete about it. She explained that Gomen can be made with either collard greens or kale. This dish was a bit of a reach for me, as I’m just starting to accept that kale salad is a suitable replacement for mixed greens and not just good blended in with smoothies to mask its strong flavor. Going in with an open mind, I found the acidity and bitterness of this dish complemented the robust flavors of turmeric, chili paste and fat that seasoned the other dishes. I definitely would recommend it if you’re willing to try something new.
3) Yater kik alicha — “Split peas cooked in mild sauce with ginger, garlic and onion.” Having eaten my fair share of Indian food, this dish particularly reminded me of a classic curried yellow lentil in terms of taste and texture.
My plate came out steaming hot from the kitchen, and the different dishes were brightly dotted over a layer of injera. Belete, motioning to the basket of crepe-looking rolls, explained to me that injera is the mandatory side with which most Ethiopian food comes. At her home, injera is made with barley flour on an instrument called a mitad, but is also typically made with teff flour. Belete also told me that injera, for household purposes, is not served rolled because doing so requires that it be cool first — that extra step is only taken for presentation purposes.
So, to Belete’s and my happy surprise, Ithaca is indeed home to a quality Ethiopian restaurant. For my first time experiencing this cuisine, I was very pleased by the variety of flavors and dishes I could try, as well as the quality of the food; it came out fast and hot, and Belete complimented the restaurant as a whole by saying, “The presentation of the food was very authentic, so were the curtains and some of the decorations.”
Serves: Authentic Ethiopian cuisine
Vibe: Homely yet a little barren