Have you eaten injera today?"
Liken this Ethiopian greeting to the American, "What's up?" or "How's your day going?" Injera—sour, spongy and more hole-filled than Swiss cheese—is the crepe-doppelganger, trademark bread of Ethiopia. It's a great multitasker. During mealtime, injera acts as accompaniment, plate and utensil.
At Awaz'e, the new Ethiopian restaurant in Cary, I was greeted differently. First, the server asked if my partner and I had dined at the restaurant before (no). Then, if we had ever eaten Ethiopian before (yes).
It's a fair question. Even in our melting-pot country and food-crazy culture, Ethiopian cuisine is still up-and-coming in America. In 2001, The New York Times published a dining piece entitled, "At Long Last, New York is Ready for Ethiopia."
More than a decade later, I can't help but wonder: Is North Carolina? While larger U.S. metropolises, such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have thriving Ethiopian communities (and eateries), I can count the number of Ethiopian restaurants in the Triangle on one hand. So if you live around here and do want to eat injera today—well, here's looking at you, Awaz'e.
Fortunately, the young restaurant serves flavorful fare and a lot of promise. When prompted about injera, our server not only shared that Awaz'e makes its bread from scratch, but explained the recipe, too. The dough—traditionally made from the grain teff—is mixed, then left overnight to ferment and develop flavor. The soft, elastic bread blanketed every plate, and there was even more alongside. Which was good, because I couldn't get enough. And dangerous, because injera seems light and airy, but it will fill you up. Fast. When you tear a piece to scoop up your beef tibs, make it small.
Awaz'e also prepares its own ayib, or fresh buttermilk cheese—crumbly like feta but milder in flavor. "Back at home," our server said with a smile, "we make it the same way." For unapologetically bold dishes—doro wat, a chicken leg and hard-boiled egg, bathing in a crimson-colored berbere sauce—ßayib serves as a soothing companion.
It's worth noting what berbere is: an essential Ethiopian spice blend. If you don't like it, you won't like Awaz'e. The mixture includes a too-long-to-list combination of ingredients (red pepper, fenugreek and cardamom, to name a few). Their berbere sauce is so well done, when all that's left is soaked, soggy injera, you'll devour that too.
Another popular dish, their signature awaz'e tibs, stands out for the same reason: sauce. This beef entrée (on the menu, there are many) features awaz'e sauce, which is made from berbere (see what I mean?), the Ethiopian wine tej and garlic. The dish arrives tableside on a still-sizzling skillet, a move I haven't seen since I last ordered fajitas at Chili's sometime in the '90s. With prominent notes of paprika and cayenne, the sauce straddles the fine line between intense spice and complex flavor.
As expected with a budding operation, some aspects of Awaz'e still crave fine-tuning. The z'kitfo—beef sautéed with jalapeño, onion and, supposedly, "seasoned butter"—was dry, a sin I suspect Americans will be quick to notice. Moreover, the small space includes no actual wall between dining room and kitchen, which means you can hear the sizzle of a hot pan, but also what I suspect is the ding-ding-ding of a microwave (surely a tool in many fine restaurants, but not one that guests necessarily like knowing about). Based upon the inconsistent temperatures on the vegetarian sampler, I imagine the appliance was used to reheat the various vegetable dishes—and not used long enough.
The sampler, like the menu, is subject to change as the restaurant ages, but my pick of the group was misir wot, which is lentils stewed in berbere, my new favorite sauce. In fact, the more I write about it, the more I think they should start bottling it. (You heard it here first.) But, until they do, I'll be glad to go back to Awaz'e to get my fix.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sauce boss."