For years now, every time I’ve visited an Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan or Shaw, the neighborhoods long associated with the fiery finger food, I’ve felt like my experience was virtually interchangeable with all previous ones. Even before I walk in, I know I can predict the menu, the tastes, and the mediocre quality of the injera. I always feel something is missing at these Anglo-friendly operations.
Last week, I found what’s missing, at Build-America at Skyline, a no-nonsense shopping center near Baileys Crossroads. What Falls Church’s Eden Center is to Vietnamese, BuildAmerica is to East and North Africans. (That is, if you discount the mall’s 7-Eleven and its handful of Middle Eastern operations.) Ethiopians, in particular, dominate the center, which, unlike neighborhoods such as Shaw and Adams Morgan, still holds out the possibility of discovery for non-Ethiopians. In fact, if you look closely, you can find small pockets where Ethiopians still eat like they do back home. One such place is the Abay Market at the northeast end of the center. Behind an animal-print room divider that cordons off the dining area—nothing more than a few tables with plastic patio chairs—three men are huddled around a platter of injera and large slabs of raw beef. With knife in hand (the first time I’ve ever seen such a utensil in an Ethiopian eatery), these men carve off chunks of meat, wrap them in injera, dab them in berbere-and-mustard-heavy awaze sauce, and plop them into their mouths. The scene feels distinctly primal.
Abay owner Yonas Alemayehu explains that raw meat is what he does. To prove his point, he shows me his walk-in cooler, where cow rounds hang on heavy metal hooks, each massive section of rump and shank meat covered in a thick layer of yellow fat. The color of the fat is telling: It indicates that the meat is lean, grass-fed beef with minimal intramuscular fat, unlike the well-marbled flesh of corn-fed cows that Americans so prize. Truth is, you don’t want much intramuscular fat when you’re eating tere sega, which is what those men are enjoying in the corner.
Yonas gives me a tutorial on how to eat tere sega; it’s more complicated than you’d think. First lesson: Don’t just dive in and start cutting your meat like you would a steak on a plate. Yonas demonstrates the proper technique: He holds the slab of beef in his left hand, and with his right, he takes a sharp steak knife and cuts into the meat, away from his body. But before his knife slices cleanly through, he rotates the beef and pinches it between his index finger and thumb. He proceeds to pull the knife up through the flesh, leaving behind two neat meaty slices.
Once properly cut, wrapped, and dipped in awaze, the raw flesh does its thing. Its cool temperature contrasts with the spicy sauce; its dense texture contrasts with the spongy injera; and its lean, purplish flesh provides the pure, unadulterated beef flavor that is the dish’s main attraction.
Despite its popularity with Ethiopians, tere sega is not easy to find in the District. “I don’t know any place that has it on the menu,” says Getachew Zewdie, manager at Dukem, long considered the standard-bearer of Ethiopian food in the Little Ethiopia section of U and 9th Streets NW. If it has cow round on hand, Dukem will serve the dish, but customers specifically have to ask for it.
Same goes for Etete, the narrow, fashion-conscious restaurant on 9th Street NW. Etete co-owner Yared Tesfaye says Ethiopians back home eat tere sega a lot; the dish is particularly a staple at Ethiopian weddings, he says, where guests will wander over to a hanging round and slice off “however much meat they want.”
Yonas, however, doesn’t need any special occasion to serve tere sega. The dish is the focus of his Amharic-language menu, which, pointedly, does not include doro wat, the chicken-and-boiled-egg entree that Americans know as Ethiopia’s national dish. (Ethiopians, Yonas notes, tend not to eat doro wat in the States because of the poor quality of the chicken here.)
Yonas’ allegiance to tere sega, despite Americans’ fear of raw beef, reflects the owner’s allegiance to his home country, which did not exactly treat him well. Yonas was a young officer in the Ethiopian army in the late ’70s when KGB agents, he says, kidnapped him in Hungary and ultimately dumped him in an Addis Ababa prison where he was tortured for eight years, presumably for his criticisms of Ethiopia’s then-pro-Communist military junta.
As if to prove his unverifiable story, Yonas shows me his teeth, two of which are silver replacements for those knocked out while he was in prison. He then begins to manipulate his jaw, which produces a prominent clicking sound. Guards broke his jawbone, he says.
A staunchly political man now, Yonas can deliver impromptu lectures on any number of subjects, such as the ongoing fight about the Nile River’s water supply. In fact, Yonas says, the very name of his market is the Amharic word for the Blue Nile. It’s one more way that Yonas refuses to bow to Western sensibilities and become one of those Ethiopian joints that cater to, and can eventually bore, Americans like me.
Abay Market, 3811-A S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church, (703) 998-5322.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x466.