(The tennessean): The wonderful book I have been reading, “Cutting for Stone”, is set in Ethiopia and so when a friend suggested meeting for lunch at a little Ethiopian restaurant in the Historic Arcade downtown, I was thrilled.
I knew little or nothing about Ethiopian food, but was happy to try it. And one meal in from the Ajora Kitchen and I’m a serious fan.
My meal was delicious, beautifully served on an oval plate by the restaurant owner Zeni Meshesha, and healthy, I think.
I mean, it seemed healthy since I chose “chicken tibs” (chunks of juicy chicken in a wonderful spicy red sauce), Gomen (collard greens) and red lentils served over rice.
And tap water (my usual drink of choice) of course.
My plate was full of wonderful and interesting food and my tab was $8.76, including tax.
My vegetarian lunch mate went for the four vegetable plate that included Tikle Gomen ( cabbage, potatoes and onion) and the Key Sir (diced beets cooked with onion, garlic and ginger) along with lentils, served over an ample piece of the spongy Injera (bread) and her tab came to right at ten dollars because she ordered a bottled water before I could stop her.
I ate my lunch with a fork, not realizing until later that most traditional Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands, tearing off pieces of the injera, and using it to grab the food and put it in your mouth.
The friendly Ajora owners Zeni and Girma Meshesha have been open in the Arcade for four years, making and serving generous portions of their native country’s food that Zeni prepares in the small adjoining kitchen, using recipes that were her mother’s and grandmother’s Ethiopian staples.
She said an Ethiopian red pepper is one of the most common spices, but other spices include garlic, ginger, jalapenos and turmeric.
The menu is the same every day on the cafeteria style setup and Zeni says the most popular items are the chicken tibs, the red lentils and the Shero, which is spicy chick peas. Other options include beef tibs, black beans, yellow split peas, and an Ajora salad.
The glass that showcases the food on the cafeteria line identifies the various bean and veggie and meat options but the owners are more than happy to explain and advise as you need.
You get a choice of rice or the Ethiopian bread, injera that is made from a special Ethiopian flour called Teff. I like the rice but the spongy injera would probably be a more authentic option, since it is the national dish of Ethiopia. And it is a must if you want to eat your food properly with your hands.
Zeni is in the restaurant cooking and serving whenever Ajora is open, while her husband comes in to help with the the lunch rush, and then returns to his other job, which is as an accounting manager for the state of Tennessee.
You can eat your Ethiopian feast inside the restaurant or you can take your plate out to one of the tables in the Arcade, where there are diners from the other restaurants and primo people watching. Ajora also does a substantial “to go” business and offers catering.
And their coffee is authentic Ethiopian coffee: “Coffee originated in Ethiopia, it is very good and very strong, like Espresso,” according to Girma.
If you wonder about the name of the restaurant, it is named after Ajora – the twin waterfalls – in Wolaita, Southern Ethiopia, which is where Zeni grew up.
I still don’t know much about Ethiopian food, but I know I like it, at least the Ajora version. I will be back for sure.
Ajora Kitchen, Ethiopian Cuisine
Where: 34 Arcade Alley in downtown Nashville
Hours: 10:30 a.m. -2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon – 9 p.m. on first Saturday of the month, Art Crawl night.
Contact: 615-891-1898 or email@example.com