There is an old Ethiopian saying: “Those who eat from the same plate will not betray each other.”
As an immigrant from Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, Endal Hailemariam knows something about this notion. In his native land, meals are always a family affair which involves not only eating from the same plate but actually eating out of each other’s hands.
“It shows love and affection,” explained Hailemariam. He and partner Tensaye Tizaw have instituted this tradition, which Ethiopians call ‘gursha,’ into their Evanston-based restaurant named after both partners’ home city.
For the uninitiated, the ritual of eating an Ethiopian meal involves staking out a choice morsel from a kaleidoscopic mélange of vegetable and meat delicacies set on a communal tray, the mesob.
Tearing off a piece of injera, the leavened bread that’s a staple of every meal, you zero in on your chosen tidbit. Then with nimble fingers, you swoop and scoop any other bits and pieces that will result myriad combinations of flavors, roll the injera securely around the morsels to create a kind of impromptu dumpling which you eat or place into the mouth of your tablemate.
“It’s what we do at home. All the kids are around and they give you gursha,” explained Hailemariam. “When people try something and you see their face is happy, it gives you a very good satisfaction.”
A practiced family patriarch, Hailemariam watches over his flock of friends and customers, and woe betide those who don’t finish their meals.
“When I see a plate come back and I see they ate everything I think, ‘Yes! We did good.’ And if I see they eat only a little, I will come out and ask: “What’s going on? How come you did not eat?’”
To choose a tasty combination just close your eyes and point. But if you’re not sure, the Chef’s Combo offers up a vibrant array of vegetarian and carnivorous delights like the doro tibs — cubes of chicken breast stir-fried in Ethiopian herb butter with onions and jalapeños ($14.75 individually); the doro wot, chicken legs simmered in berbere (a red pepper sauce), spiced butter and honey wine ($14.00 individually); or the tekil gomen, a mélange of cabbage, carrots and potatoes ($10.25 individually).
Whenever a customer chooses dishes with the right color scheme, chef Demessew Assefa recreates the Ethiopian flag in the center of each mesob. That could incorporate the gomen, green spinach cooked with onions to represent the land; yemiser wot made of red lentils in spicy garlic, cardamom and cloves as a symbol of strength; and yeater kik alitcha, the yellow split peas cooked with garlic and ginger to represent peace and hope ($14.00 for one up to $52.00 for four).
“When our customers come in and we see that happiness in their faces, we are always thankful about that,” said Hailemariam.