It’s like entering a village in the rugged highlands of ancient Abyssinia. Diners sit at low basket tables under thatched straw roofs surrounded by African art and artifacts, posters and wall-size photos.
No clatter of plates and silverware interrupts the soothing music because here you eat with your fingers and the food is arrayed on spongy bread.
Dr. Carl Robson, a family physician, fell in love with Ethiopian cuisine and culture on a trip to Africa in 1982. “Such a different place, but fascinating. And I just became intrigued. And I’ve sort of been an amateur Ethiopianist ever since.”
Robson’s interest deepened when he met a young woman a medical missionary friend of his had been sponsoring.
“I got to know her. She worked in my office as a nurse for a while and we ended up getting married along the way.”
In 1986, Senait had been a refugee.
“The socialist government of Ethiopia. I didn’t like that.”
Together, the Robsons helped other young Ethiopians come to Cleveland to study medicine.
They put on events to raise money for scholarships.
Fundraising for medical students led to the restaurant
“And we would hold buffet dinners and slide shows on Ethiopia every month or two. Raised a few dollars for our students and people started liking the food and they said, ‘Well, gee, why don’t you open a restaurant?’”
He was a doctor, she was a nurse, neither had any culinary training or business experience, and at times it’s been a struggle. But the midtown Cleveland restaurant has stayed open for 20 years.
“It’s been a shoestring operation, I’ll have to admit, but a cultural place. And we try to offer authentic Ethiopian food and we’ve enjoyed the experience, so we’ve somehow struggled along and managed to open ever since.”
Named for a champion of Ethiopian independence
They named the restaurant for the most powerful African woman of her time. The warrior queen Empress Taytu’s army of 5,000 defeated the Italians at Adwa in 1896 leading the way to Ethiopia’s independence.
“She’s also the one who opened the first hotel-restaurant ever in Addis Ababa , Ethiopia. I wondered if she was known for her cooking. I don’t …” “She might have learned but I don’t think at her level she had to cook.”
Senait draws on what she learned growing up.
We find her in the open kitchen of Empress Taytu.
“I’m roasting coffee, coffee beans. You’re roasting it in a sauté pan. Yes. And what are you looking for? You want them to turn from green to … dark brown . And then I added whole cloves to flavor it. I can smell the cloves.”
The tantalizing aromas of Empress Taytu appealed right away to Sandhya Gupta. She’s a civil rights attorney who met Robson’s daughter, an honoree of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations that Gupta co-chairs. That’s how she learned about the restaurant and decided to check it out.
“It was a Tuesday night and I understand that during the week people often don’t go out to eat in Cleveland. But I was surprised by the fact that my friend and I were the only people in the restaurant. … I was shocked because the food was absolutely phenomenal. And I thought this is just not right. This place needs to be packed. A day or two later I was thinking to myself that this was a great possibility for a cash mob.”
Cash mobs are a locally originated phenomenon. It started in Cleveland last year when local attorney Andrew Samtoy used social media to organize support of struggling retail establishments. Now it’s happening all over the country.
Right after her meal at Empress Taytu, Gupta sent out 150 emails and 250 Facebook invitations for a cash mob at Empress Taytu.
“I have not been on twitter until January 24th. That Tuesday, I got on Twitter and I learned how to use it really fast.”
The cash mob was a success. Thirty-five patrons attented the event.
Complex spice blends
For Gupta, part of the appeal of Ethiopian cuisine is its similarity to Indian food. “Some of the spices certainly tasted similar to me."
Ethiopian spices don’t really have a curry taste," said Carl Robson. " But they’re both based on very complex spice blends that have evolved over centuries and centuries.”
The Robson’s import a special blend from Sunait’s homeland.
“Fourteen or 15 different kinds of spices mixed with it, and that one comes straight from Ethiopia because it’s a lot of work to prepare that. It’s called Berberry. So you have that shipped in.Yes. Yes we do. What do you find for the majority of your customers is the favorite dish? The dish that people really talk to you most about? The dorowat, which is a chicken made with a sauce with this blend of spices. And they also like the D’ibs a lot. I can’t say that word. Say it again for me. D’ibs. D’ibs can you describe that? OK. D’ibs is made out of onion, garlic, ginger, lean beef or chicken breasts, or if you are a vegetarian we make it with mushroom for you, and rosemary and, depending on your wish, we can make it hot, mild, or medium.”
No silverware needed
You grab bits of the meat and chicken stews and casseroles with porous, spongy bread called injera. Dr. Robson says it’s made from a grain that they also import from Africa.
“The grain called Tef, or properly T’ef, originates in Ethiopia. It’s the tiniest cereal grain known. In Ethiopia it ferments for a few days and then you make the injera over a charcoal grill and a clay griddle there. Here we leave ours for how long? Three days. We reproduce that as well as we can. Of course we use the stove, but we still use a gourd to pour the injera mix.”
And they still use a traditional wooden mortar and pestle to grind the coffee that caps the meal.
“The Ethiopian coffee ceremony starts after a dinner. It starts with the green beans being roasted and then ground.”
The coffee originates in the Ethiopian region called Keffa, where it grows wild.
“And there are many folk stories about how it originated. A goatherd saw his goats acting very peculiarly, dancing and jumping around and discovered they had eaten these red beans, right?”
Sandia Gupta’s cash mob feasted on the history and culture.
“And they loved it and they want to come back and they intend to come back. Another friend of mine said to me that it really built community, and I loved that because I thought that’s exactly what we did. And another group of friends sat and did the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. This one friend of mine said they had not laughed that much in so long. And so that, too, was lovely to hear.”
Gupta also made an unexpected connection.
“After everybody left , I was saying goodbye to Sunait. What did you say to me Sunait? Is your Mom a doctor? I said to her yes my mother is a doctor. She worked for Kaiser and Sunait said, ‘I used to work with her.’ It was just bringing it full circle.”
“Empress Taytu is providing a service to our community because they’re bringing us diverse culture and food and opening our minds to something so outside of our provincial world. So bringing it from the international level, which they’ve done so beautifully, into the small world of Cleveland where Sunait knows my mother.”
Sunait and Carl Robson return to Ethiopia about every two years.
“It’s not a dangerous place to travel. It’s safe. It’s not as restricted as the previous government had been. It’s not ideal. But if you want a good Ethiopian meal, you don’t have to go that far. You don’t have to go that far. You can come right here.”
Empress Taytu ‘s extensive menu includes 28 appetizers and entrees but only a few desserts as sweets are rare in Ethiopian culture. But you can have vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup or mango juice. That menu item is called “Missionary’s Delight.”