Since 1998, Ghenet Restaurant, just off the corner of Mulberry and Houston streets in New York City’s trendy SoHo neighborhood, has offered diners a quiet respite from the bustle outside. Ghenet means “paradise” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and, because angels are recurring symbols in Ethiopian religious art, the proprietor, Yeworkwoha Ephrem, adopted the motto, “where angels eat.” With its delectable Ethiopian cuisine, Ghenet diners may indeed think they’ve wandered into a divine precinct.
Ethiopian food is customarily eaten with the fingers. First, hot towels are distributed to cleanse the hands, then the food is served on a large platter, along with injera, a flat, spongy, fermented bread that has a slightly sour taste. Diners literally “break bread” by tearing off pieces of injera and wrapping it around small portions of food for consumption.
Chili, in wet (awaze) or dry (berbere) form, is used in many Ethiopian dishes. Two tips: the redder the dish, the hotter the chili; a glass of Tej, a wine made from raw honey and the bark of the hop plant, will soothe a palate on fire. Historically, Tej was the drink of the royal family, who were all descendents of the Queen of Sheba, but it’s not unusual for Ethiopians to make their own home brew. Ephrem purchases her Tej from Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, N.Y., which makes its own line of honey wine.
My favorite dishes are sega wett—a beef stew made with caramelized onions, berbere, clarified butter, garlic and fresh, minced ginger—and tuna kitfo—a minced tuna tartare mixed with olive oil, shallots, jalapeño pepper, clarified oil and herbs. Wett, used as a dipping sauce, also goes well with chicken, fish and vegetables. Aterkik aletcha, split peas in a light, mild sauce, goes well with gomen wett, collard greens Ethiopian-style.
Ghenet’s décor adds to the culinary experience. The walls are painted a deep, crimson red and form an ad-hoc art gallery for Ethiopian artist Ezra Woubé, whose water colors capture slices of Ethiopian life and history. “I give him my walls so he can have free reign,” Ephrem says with a smile.
But the most striking image sits at the back of the restaurant. Like a resident grande dame, a black-and-white photograph of Ephrem’s 88-year-old mother, Muluwork, taken by New York Times photographer and family friend Chester Higgins, oversees her daughter’s creation from her perch on the wall. “My mother’s name means ‘complete goal,’ and she has always inspired me to be an entrepreneur,” explains Ephrem. In the frugal days at the end of World War II, Muluwork bought and sold real estate and ran several businesses to support her family. “She tried everything and excelled in everything,” says Ephrem.
She recounted with pride the resiliency of Ethiopian women throughout her country’s tumultuous past, including the period of political unrest that forced her to flee in 1978 with her three children. She landed in New York, where she joined her husband.
Ephrem plans to launch “Ghenet Brooklyn” later this year in that borough’s Park Slope neighborhood. Within the next five years, she hopes to create a frozen foods line of Ethiopian dishes. In the meantime, she has built a school in honor of her late husband in his hometown in Ethiopia and hopes to add an extension every year. In her own way, Ephrem is poised to become the grande dame of her own business empire.