Taste of Ethiopia’s Owner Woinee Mariam Shares Her Story
And her recipe for red lentil stew
Woinee Mariam, owner of Taste of Ethiopia, knows a thing or two about shifting plans on a dime. "I have to take a break to make someone an iced tea to go," she announces as we chat. "It's really good, and has spices in it. Then I can talk to you."
When she jumps back on the call Mariam, whose restaurant is currently open for takeout and delivery, says in June sales were finally starting to pick back up after the first wave of pandemic restrictions, largely due to support for Black-owned businesses as a result of the ongoing nationwide demonstrations against systemic racial injustice. "When you guys published that list, you have no idea how much it helps us. I was able to pay my rent. I was that close to not [being able to] pay the rent. When people were [actively] supporting, we had everything we needed. It was crazy: People were lined up outside to take out the food. I had to get the family to come help me."
The entire hospitality industry continues to suffer, with mandates returning restaurants to reduced capacities, among other restrictions, as a result of resurging COVID-19 cases. "People are not careful – that's what made it bad. If everybody just did what they were supposed to do – wear a mask, stuff like that."
When asked if there's a danger of not paying rent again, Mariam says, "It's scary, yes. I have never done that. Over 12 years never had an issue, always on time. And now we also have the new location down South Congress. It's a little scary, but you know, so far we're making it, but it's very hard."
Still, she's hopeful. Taste of Ethiopia has built a close-knit community since opening in Pflugerville in October of 2008: "It was a month before Obama. I always remember that. When I opened they said I shouldn't do it, that no one would come. I didn't even know the different areas [of town] when I opened this place. I just got it, and I said, 'OK, we can fix it.' And we did.
"I'm lucky I have regulars who support me and come as much as they can, eat here," she says. "However they can help me, they will come. I had a guest today who brought his new baby to show me. The baby is covered properly, they have the masks and the gloves and they did all the steps, but I told him, 'You shouldn't bring the kid out!' I'm so glad to see the baby, but I can't hold him, I can't get close to him. But I have those kinds [of customers] that come to see me. Very dedicated. It's a blessing to have that."
As we chat about trudging ahead, Mariam mentions that she's thinking of doing cooking classes, a long-held goal. "My goal in the future will be to teach special ed kids, kids with autism, kids left alone at home who have to cook. Teach those kids how to cook something simple, without being scared of the oven or something like that. I have my own daughter who has autism and she has done so much improvement. [Cooking] helps them. They see it like art. Cooking is art for them, you know? So when you teach it, they grab it with passion, but at the same time when they see the fire, the heat is higher than what they expect and they get scared. Those are the kids I'd love to teach."
I told her I'd been thinking about teaching my own son, nearly 11 and full of confidence, some new kitchen tricks.
"Teach him! If he's that kind of kid, it's better to teach him now. Because once they reach 13, 14, they lose interest," she tells me. "I taught my boys like that, and on Mother's Day and Father's Day they cook for us. But you have to make sure he only cooks when you're home. That's very important to get in their head," she laughed. "I say, 'If I'm not here, I don't want you near the stove.' My son was only 15 when I opened this store, [but] I [didn't] have to worry because he [knew] how to cook, how to cook for his sister who's gluten-free, dairy-free because of allergies, and how to take care of his younger brother and himself."
She's right, he should be cooking more, I admitted. "Don't rush it, step by step," she says. "Just ask him what his favorite food is and start with that."
That's how she learned after all, and now her restaurant menu is full of twists on her mom's classics. "I was around my mom most of the time, so they are hers, but what I did was twist them to be my own, make them better tasting [with my spices] but also [remain] authentic. I want 5-year-olds to 85-year-olds to eat it. If I have a family restaurant, it should carry everybody, that's how I feel," she says.
Mariam moved to the Washington, D.C., area from Ethiopia when she was almost 16 years old, and her first stateside job was working in a restaurant as a host. It was then she decided her dream: "I looked at this place, with like 250 seats, and I said, 'Oh I'm gonna own a restaurant like this one day.'"
She went on to get married and have three children. When her daughter, who has autism, was entering high school, Mariam and her husband made the decision to uproot and move to Austin, where they could stay with family. "It was hard, but we had to do something to survive, to make it work. Me and my husband, whatever we had, we put it together and owned this restaurant. God is good: I'm living my dream, my kids are well, so until this thing [COVID-19] comes up, I am doing well. But it's gonna be good [again]. I still have hope."
She believed in her dream. "I always believe people like to go places like mine. I like to go somewhere where I know who is cooking it, where I know they love it and they have passion and they'll take care of me. When I opened this place I was by myself, just me. At first I closed the door and kneeled down and I prayed, 'Dear Lord, I will never feed anyone [food] that's not good enough for my kids. My job is to work and to care.' That was my prayer, and then I got up and started working. It still chokes me [up] when I think of that day. And it helps now when I'm still sitting in the restaurant all alone, but I know it's gonna get better. It's gonna be okay. God didn't give me this place or this work to quit. He gave it to me so I can work on it, and there will be ups and downs."
When I asked about the uptick in interest in Ethiopian food (and other food from the African diaspora) over the past few years, she concurs, saying, "A lot of people would come in out of curiosity, but once they start eating it, there's no turning back. They become regulars. That's just how it works because people are used to different kinds of food. But Ethiopian food is amazing, colorful, and you get to eat with your fingers. You can use all the senses God gave you. Very healthy and tasty, who wouldn't want that?"
And what do most folks start with if they're new to Ethiopian cuisine?
"If they like spicy food and meat dishes, I suggest the lamb tibbs or doro wot. If they want vegetarian, the sampler is good because they have five kinds of dishes, or the ultimate combination which has six. There are collard greens, carrots and tomatoes, split peas, lentils, cabbage, eggplant. Some are spicy, some are not, but even the not spicy [items] are very good."
Mariam insists that anyone can find something they love at her restaurants. "I'm telling you: I have people who never tried anything other than Texan food. They eat this and like it – sometimes I have to really force them to just try it. I say, 'It's OK if you don't like it. I'll pay for it.' I don't mind because I want them to try whatever they want to try. And then they try it, and next thing you know, they are enjoying it, using their fingers. That's what I want! Then they come back and bring their family. I've had people who had their first date here and now they have small kids, three kids. Some who had little kids when they first came, now the kids have finished school and gotten married. It's crazy. I learn so much from this little place. So much."
Restaurants are powerful because really they're about the people, I offer.
"Yes, that's why it's crazy: People are trying to support me," Mariam says. "I have people who I know are not [well-off] and they come in and spend money. I see them giving me a huge tip and I know what they're trying to do: They're trying to help me. I know someday I'll be able to return the favor, in a better way, in the good times. It's gonna get better and I'm very hopeful."
Yemisir Wot (Red Lentil Stew)A vegetarian recipe from Taste of Ethiopia
People who know the restaurant will recognize this dish, called Yemisir Wot on the Taste of Ethiopia menu, which describes this one as "zesty lentil splits slowly cooked in flavorful berbere sauce with red onions and a blend of traditional spices simmered to perfection." In Amharic, Ethiopia's official language, "misir" means lentil and "wot" is stew, and "ye" means "of." And as for the ingredients, berbere is an Ethiopian spice mixture that can be bought by the pound or kilo at Selam Market in Austin or at various sellers online. Alternatively, you can use chili powder or cayenne to taste, or if you're sensitive to heat you could DIY a blend of the other components – there's a good amount of info about berbere online. Ethiopia's national dish, injera, is a spongy textured sour fermented flatbread made out of teff flour, and can also be bought at Selam Market. – Selome Hailu
1 cup red lentils (rinse before cooking).
2 sm/med diced red onions.
3 tablespoon of berbere powder.
2.5 oz. olive/vegetable oil.
1 teaspoon of minced garlic.
1 teaspoon of minced ginger.
1 teaspoon of salt.
3 cups of water.
Start with diced onions and cook them with low heat until they turn golden brown. Add the olive oil and let it simmer for a couple of minutes.
Add the ginger and garlic and allow to simmer for another 2–3 minutes at medium to low heat. Then, add berebere and cook it for about five minutes being careful not to burn or stick to the bottom of the pan. You may add water as needed.
Once the berbere and the ingredients fully infused, add 3 cups/24 oz. of water and bring it to boil. Let the water boil for 2-3 minutes and add your lentils after bringing the heat down to medium.
Once the red lentils are cooked and soft enough to consume, turn the heat off and let rest for about five minutes and it is ready for consumption with injera if available or any kind of flatbread.
Adding a tablespoonfull of clarified butter will take it to another level, satisfying those who may not be vegan.
Full disclosure: Our editorial intern Selome Hailu is Woinee Mariam’s niece.
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