Owner Bogolech Marrero named her restaurant after the Awash River, a tributary of the Blue Nile. She explained that she always crosses the Awash as she nears home on her trips back to Ethiopia. During a brief visit to New York this February, I decided to stop in for a glass of tej, that wonderful honey wine that warms you on even a chill New York winter night, plus some injera and stews.
Injera, of course, is a spongy bread commonly made from a fermented teff, or tef (a type of millet) dough that is cooked in giant pancake shapes and has a slight tang. The injera serves as a plate and is covered with spicy stews made from chicken (like doro wat), beef, lamb or vegetables. Neatly folded companion pieces of injera alongside the platter double as utensils for scooping up stews and sauces (or soaking up juices) from the common platter.
My daughter Masi and I started with tej and sambusas, which must be related to samosas. Our vegetarian version was stuffed with green chilis, lentils, and some other spiced vegetables, then covered with a pastry shell, and deep-fried. We moved on to a combination plate that included tibs wat(wat means stew and I’m guessing tibs means beef), doro alicha (doro must mean chicken, and alicha[or alecha] is a more delicately seasoned dish). Though wat literally means stew, according to the folks at Kokeb restaurant in Seattle Washington where I ate a year ago, it could also be translated as “hot” since “wats” are prepared with berbere, a popular hot red pepper-based Ethiopian seasoning. Another distinctive ingredient in Ethiopian cooking is niter kibbeh, an herb butter. The “alichas” are not prepared with berbere, but with more suble spices.
We also had a number of vegetarian stews/sauces on our injera. I’ve heard that because the Coptic church has a large number of fast days throughout the year when eating meat is forbidden, this part of Sub-Saharan Africa tends to have more vegetarian dishes than its neighbors. Bogolech Marrero told me that since she became a vegetarian she has experimented with developing her own recipes using Ethiopian ingredients and techniques. She must have been successful, as The Village Voice in 2000 declared Awash to have the Best Ethiopian Vegetarian Plate, and in 2002 the restaurant was listed among The TONY Top 100 (in the 6th Annual Eat Out Awards).
Masi and I found the cozy family atmosphere comfortably unpretentious, the menu prices agreeable (entrees were only $10-15), and the food delicious. Each of the two walls on one side of the candle-lit dining room was covered with large impressive portraits of past emperors, the other side with pastoral scenes. Of course, we’re used to spicy West African cooking, so if you prefer a milder cuisine, I’m not sure if those options are available. Also, don’t come looking for seafood dishes or mushrooms (someone told me most people in Ethiopia don’t eat mushrooms, that they call them “the hyena’s umbrella.”) The food was filling, and I was sorry I had no room for any Ethiopian coffee or spiced tea at the end. I recommend you stop by if you’re in the area. The restaurant is located at 947 Amsterdam Ave. in New York City, phone number: 212-961-1416. Their posted hours were Monday through Friday 1 p.m. to 12 a.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 12 a.m. Tell them Fran sent you!
If you can’t get to Awash, there are lots of other Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants to choose from. Enjoy your messa (Amharic for lunch) or irat (dinner).
copyright Fran Osseo-Asare, 2003