South End Ethiopian Restaurants Paint a Picture of a Vibrant Community

by Mark Van Streefkerk

If you search for Seattle Ethiopian restaurants on a map, something you’ll notice first is where they are. While there are a few restaurants in North Seattle, the overwhelming concentration is in the Central and South End, especially from Columbia City to the Rainier Beach area. It’s a clear indicator of where the Ethiopian community has settled. 

“You’ll definitely see more Ethiopian restaurants on the South End than on the North End because our population is greater around those areas,” said a customer at Delish Ethiopian Cuisine who requested to not be named. Ordering from an Ethiopian restaurant offers a glimpse into the rich culture and artistry of these communities. 

Ethiopian foods are known for their bold, spicy, and savory flavors with plenty of options for omnivores and vegetarians (and vegans!) alike. There are no preservatives in Ethiopian cuisine, so everything is made fresh each day, and the way a restaurant prepares food is very similar to how families would make food at home. Popular dishes include tibs (slices of beef or lamb pan-fried in garlic, butter, or onion), misir wot (spicy lentils stewed in berbere — a distinctly Ethiopian blend of spices that might include chili peppers, fenugreek, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon), and other meats or vegetables stewed in spices and herbs, like shiro, made from chickpeas. 

Ethiopian food is served on a large platter on injera, a sour, slightly spongy flatbread usually made from teff, a north African grain. Teff just so happens to be packed with nutrients, a good source of protein, and is naturally gluten free (if you are sensitive to gluten, make sure to ask for gluten-free injera, since some injera might be made with wheat). 

“Community is a big thing for us,” the Delish customer said. “That’s why you’ll see Ethiopians having a big platter. We started noticing people eating by themselves only when we came to Western countries. When we go back home, it’s always a big platter and everyone eats together.”

Ethiopia is considered by many to be the birthplace of coffee, and coffee ceremonies are part of family and community life. Many Ethiopian restaurants will serve coffee with a snack like homemade sweet bread (pictured) or popcorn. (Photo: Mark Van Streefkerk)

Ethiopia is also considered by many to be the birthplace of coffee. Coffee ceremonies are a part of family and community life that includes the process of pan-roasting green (or not yet roasted) coffee beans, letting them cool before grinding, brewing the coffee, and pouring it from a jebena — a clay pot with a long neck — into small cups. Families and friends typically enjoy three rounds of coffee, served with snacks (at Delish it is served with popcorn or a housemade sweet bread) and incense. The whole ceremony can take up to a few hours. Most Ethiopian restaurants on the South End offer coffee, if not the entire ceremony. Kaffa Coffee, at 8136 Rainier Avenue South, uses (and sells) organic Ethiopian coffee beans and during the pandemic offers a coffee ceremony by reservation. 

Delish Ethiopian Cuisine is the newest of Ethiopian restaurants on Rainier Avenue South, and features a full bar as well as authentic recipes and coffee ceremonies. (Photo: Mark Van Streefkerk)

Delish is the newest Ethiopian restaurant in the area, established at 5701 Rainier Ave South about 10 months before the pandemic hit. During that time, Delish Lemma and his wife — and head chef — Amy Abera, made the hard decisions that so many other businesses had to in order to stay afloat. “If we shut down and turned our lights off, that might have been it for us,” Lemma remembered. “We had to let everybody go. I took the front [of the house]; my wife had the kitchen. It was really tough, but we never turned our lights off. We never shut our doors.” 

In the beginning of the pandemic, Delish operated as takeout only. Instead of relying on third party delivery services, Lemma chose to deliver orders himself within a 2-mile radius of the restaurant. 

Lemma and Abera’s hard work led to a 2021 Endurance Award from Puget Sound Business Journal. “We owe it all to the neighbors,” Lemma said. “They kept us going. We really want to thank Hillman City, Columbia City … our loyal customers kept us going.”

Lemma and Abera both hail from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and use recipes passed down from Abera’s mother and grandmother, both known for their culinary expertise. Make sure to try the Veggie Combo, which includes 10 vegan choices, and the Delish Combo, which features both meat and veggie options. 

Right across the street from Delish is Amy’s Merkato Eritrean & Ethiopian Restaurant and Deli. Formerly a Central District staple, Amy’s is unique in that they offer a full menu of specialty coffee drinks as well as dishes inspired by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Mediterranean food and ingredient combinations — plus, the restaurant space also houses a market featuring jebenas, injera, incense, green coffee beans, and a variety of spices and ingredients so you can make authentic Ethiopian and Eritrean favorites at home. On the menu customers will find a wide variety of options from meatball and falafel sandwiches to massive plates of authentic Ethiopian fare, as well as pastries and baked goods fresh-baked in house.

Amy’s Merkato Eritrean & Ethiopian Restaurant and Deli features a full menu, desserts, coffee drinks, and an Ethiopian market. (Photo: Mark Van Streefkerk)

Check out even more Seattle Ethiopian restaurants on Intentionalist’s website.  

In addition to his work at Delish, Lemma has over two decades of experience promoting Ethiopian music. He organized the upcoming sixth annual Ethiopian Day, featuring traditional music, dancing, fashion, food, and art. Ethiopian Day takes place this Saturday, Sept. 4, at Seward Park Amphitheater from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

But for the community, every day is Ethiopian Day. “Everywhere we go we try to make it as familiar as possible, so recreating what is back home: the markets, food, spices, the drinks,” said the Delish customer. “You will meet an Ethiopian in Antarctica and they will somehow try to recreate Ethiopia in Antarctica. It’s just part of us.”

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

📸 Featured Image: Ethiopian food is bursting with flavors. Common offerings include beef, chicken, seafood, or veggies stewed in fresh herbs and spices and served on top of injera, a sour, spongy flatbread made from teff. (Photo courtesy of Delish Ethiopian Cuisine).

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