SIOUX CITY | Makda Gebre is constantly testing her Awaze sauce for taste.
“Awaze is made with (a colorful spice mixture called) berbere, garlic and wine,” she said of the deep, dark and strongly flavored paste that will soon be placed on top of a steak, onions and peppers. “No matter what else you put in it, you want those three ingredients to stand out.”
The head chef at Elilly Restaurant and Coffee House, Gebre owns the 1529 Pierce St. restaurant, along with business partners Mohammad Tullo and Tewondros Worku.
All three are originally from Ethiopia, and their restaurant specializes in cuisine that is native to the country located in the Horn of Africa.
“We serve nothing but authentic Ethiopian food,” Worku, who goes by the nickname “Teddy,” explained. “You can get a burger or a burrito anyplace but if you want an Ethiopian meal, you must come here.”
A former literature and communications professor in Ethiopia, Worku initially learned about restaurant management from his mother.
“My mother owned a small sandwich shop back home,” he said. “She made food that people ate on the go.”
When he moved to the United States more than five years ago, Worku wanted to open a restaurant that served family style meals in a comfortable setting.
But first, he needed to make some money.
“I worked in Le Mars, Iowa, at Wells Enterprises,” Worku explained. “It’s only been a few weeks since I left my job.”
However, he has kept busy immersing himself in the development of Elilly’s decor as well as its menu.
So, what does Ethiopian food taste like? Many dishes consist of spiced vegetables and meats like beef, lamb, chicken or goat.
Some of Elilly’s most popular meals are wats — a spicy beef stew that is typically cooked with onions, garlic, berbere, tomato sauce and a clarified butter called niter kibbeh — and tibs — which is grilled meats and vegetables served in a seasoned sauce.
“The Awaze tibs isn’t spicy since the berbere sauce simply goes over the meat,” Gebre said, scooping the fragrant meat-and-vegetable mixture onto a plate. “Other times, berbere is used to marinate the meat. Then, it can become spicy.”
She said people mistakenly think Ethiopian food will be too hot.
“That isn’t the case,” Gebre said, shaking her head. “While we use chili peppers, we also use ginger, turmeric, garlic, basil and cardamom, which all balance out hot flavors.”
Gebre definitely knows what she’s talking about. Since moving to the United States, she has worked in restaurant kitchens, where she has perfected the meals her mother made for her as a child in Ethiopia.
She also acknowledges using another unique tool to stay up to date in Ethiopian cuisine.
“If I don’t know how to make something, I’ll check to see if there’s an instructional video on YouTube,” Gebre said.
One entree that she can make by heart is kitfo, which is a personal favorite of both Gebre and Worku.
Kitfo is chopped beef that is served with butter and mitmata, a spicy ground chili pepper. The meat in kitfo is either served well-done, rare or raw.
Wait, raw meat, really? Well, actually it’s lightly seared, like a Steak Tartar.
And like many of Elilly’s meals, kitfo is served with injera, a flat sourdough bread made of a grain called teff.
“Ethiopians eat injera at breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Worku explained. “Injera is placed on a tray while the entree and salad is served on top.”
This, he said, allows the meal to be enjoyed, family style.
Demonstrating on a plate of Awaze Tibs, Worku tears off a piece of the injera and scoops up some of the meaty tibs as well as some of the salad.
“Ethiopian meals are often enjoyed without the use of utensils,” he remarked. “We use injera to eat bite-sized pieces of food instead of a knife or fork.”
Being a former educator, Worku said he likes introducing people to Ethiopian cuisine. Soon, he hopes Elilly to be the site of ceremonial coffee ceremonies. In addition, he’d like to open a small, onsite bar that will serve Ethiopian wines and beers.
“Ethiopian food is healthy, delicious and full of flavor,” he said. “I’m looking forward to serving it to everyone.”
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