When cousins Fasil Tesfaye and Zewditu Zewdie fly home to America from their native Ethiopia, they bring back large suitcases packed with spices: berbere, mit'ten shiro, bulla, besso.
"I don't think anybody leaves with anything but spices in their luggage," says Tesfaye, who immigrated to America when he was seventeen years old.
Tesfaye and Zewdie are the owners of Goorsha, a new Ethiopian restaurant on Main Street at the edge of downtown Durham.
"Part of what we want our customers to experience is the experience of our own homes," Tesfaye says. "So, thank our moms for the menu!"
Fundamental to the Goorsha experience is communal eating, or family-style. Zewdie explains that in Ethiopia families share food from the same plate. "So eating by yourself is like being selfish."
In Amharic, goorsha means the act of feeding another person as an expression of love, "like a hug between friends," as the menu explains.
Tesfaye and Zewdie immigrated to the States on their own as teenagers, zig-zagging between the east and west coasts for school or jobs. They tossed around the idea of opening a restaurant for a while. But Zewdie had spent almost twenty years working at Verizon, based in Virginia, and Tesfaye was running a smoothie business here in the Triangle. The restaurant was more a fun joke to bring up during the holidays than a serious business venture.
Then two things happened: Zewdie left her job and moved to Durham, and Tesfaye noticed a vacant building on Main Street. Tesfaye drove by the building every day for months, hoping to see a phone number of a realtor or landlord taped to the door. It wasn't until he noticed a friend walking into the vacated building that he parked his car in the middle of Main Street and ran right in. Tesfaye's friend connected him with the owner, which led to the former Rainbow Chinese takeout joint transforming into a completely up-fitted Ethiopian restaurant.
Mastering the injera recipe was the next step. Injera is made from a fermented mix of teff, a grain native to Ethiopia, and water. The barely viscous batter is poured onto a flat hot surface and covered, quickly "baking" into a thin, soft disc: one side velvety smooth, the other porous. Tibs (strips of meat), wats (curry-like stews), gomen (collard greens), and assorted salads are served in abundant heaps on the porous side like paints on a palette. To eat, you rip off pieces of the injera from the outer perimeter to scoop up the various foods on top. The meal isn't considered finished until everything has been eaten, including the injera base.
It is notoriously difficult to get injera right in America. Whether it's the different altitude or water, conditions aren't conducive to fermentation—it tastes too bitter, without enough structural support to grab the various tibs and wats. Many Ethiopian restaurants in the D.C. area source it directly from Addis Ababa aboard a daily Ethiopian Airlines flight.
It took Tesfaye and Zewdie over six months to perfect the recipe. Their secret? They mix their teff flour with a bit of rice flour to balance the acrid taste and add some hold to the batter. (And yes, it's all gluten-free.) Goorsha's injera has the tanginess of sourdough bread with the consistency of a spongy crêpe.
To develop the menu, they translated Ethiopian food into an American context. Jalapeños take the place of hwentia, a versatile pepper common to many African cuisines. In their vegan dishes, oil is used instead of niter kibbeh, a clarified butter. They take special care to locally source many of their ingredients, and their bar offers a full line of Fullsteam brews on tap.
A standout dish is the kashka appetizer: a warm cornbread topped with gomen and zilbo (beef short ribs). The subtle vinegar muskiness of the gomen works perfectly with the sweet, crumbling cornbread and spicy, tender zilbo.
Classics include doro wat, a chicken leg and a whole boiled egg in a pool of maroon gravy flavored with berbere—a blend of more than fifteen spices like chili pepper, ginger, cardamom, and garlic. Pinched between an envelope of injera, the chicken can be pulled right off the bone.
The red lentil dish, yemisir kik, uses a similar blend of spices. Much of Ethiopian cuisine is vegetarian. Zewdie herself is a vegan. "The vegan food is our everyday food," she said. "It's my everyday food."
Metin shiro (ground chickpea stew) and kik alecha (yellow split pea stew) are two tantalizing, comforting staples. Fosolia, a mix of green beans and carrots in a tomato sauce, is a briny compliment to the stewed legumes.
Tesfaye thanks his community for the evolution of Goorsha. He acknowledges construction workers, neighbors, and local Ethiopian restaurant owners who offer work, advice, and goodwill. He notes a large extended family and the broader Ethiopian community, too. One friend curated the artwork, another visited from out of town to work a shift, and his sister supervised the kitchen for the first week to make sure flavors were right.
"We all come from a big family, so we each have a village in our house!" Tesfaye jokes.
"That's just how the Ethiopian community is," Zewdie continues. "[Everyone] takes the ties off from their nine-to-five job and mops up the restaurant at night. Whatever it is that needs to be done, they come and do it."