By Miriam Berger |

Mulu can handle the spice. She smiles proudly as she pulls out a large green Ethiopian pepper and tears a chunk into smaller pieces.

“Are you sure you want to try?” the mother of two teases me in Hebrew.

She rips off of a bit of gray injera bread from the platter before us and uses it to scoop up kik alicha—golden yellow lentils—and adds a hunk of the kara pepper on top before shoving the finished product straight into my mouth. In Ethiopian culture, it’s a mark of honor to be fed. And in Mulu’s restaurant, this chef runs the show.

The sour, spongy injera mixes with the mild and melding lentils and the crunchy hot pepper for a deliciously flavor-packed experience. Mulu laughs as she sways her shoulders to the Ethiopian music playing from the TV, rips off more injera, scoops up more lentils, and goes for the biggest kara chunk. This one’s for her. A moment later her wide eyes are watering and she takes a big dramatic sip of Ethiopian beer. She repeats until the fiery pepper is gone.

“Here we call it ‘Addis Sababa,’” one of Mulu’s regulars, Danny, jokes to me. It’s a play on Danny’s hometown, Addis Ababa, and sababa, a Hebrew slang word with many uses, including to convey yes, cool, or great. He laughs at his own joke. “Addis Sababa.”

Mulu’s restaurant and bar, Dire, is my favorite of the seven or so Ethiopian restaurants, and handful of bars and food shops now populating West Jerusalem’s city center. They are clustered around Jaffa, Agripos, and King George Streets, close to the main transportation hubs. Inside it can feel like Little Ethiopia and, for a moment at least, you are removed from this pressure-cooked city so obsessed with how you pronounce the h in hummus.

There are now an estimated 130,000 Ethiopians living in Israel, a majority of them Jewish and Israeli citizens. Like Mulu, most of them or their families immigrated over the past three decades as part of Israel’s push to bring in Ethiopia’s Jews living in hardship. Their status as citizens is different from the smaller number of Israel’s Ethiopian Christians, many who made the journey, sometimes via smuggling routes through Sudan and Egypt’s Sinai, to find work and opportunities, or to seek refugee and asylum status. Others came because Jewish family members already in Israel helped bring them over. In Ethiopia, religious identity was not traditionally defined along the same rigid lines as Israeli law.

Ethiopians are now a very visible part of the fabric of this contested city. But the cuisine, as food trends go, has remained largely off the map. In a way, perhaps that’s a good thing, leaving these spaces the way people like Mulu want them.

But for Mulu, there’s more to it than that. Mulu’s Russian-immigrant neighbors frequently harass her and call her children racist names, she says. And they aren’t the only ones. It’s no secret that some don’t like that her restaurant draws together so many Ethiopians to the neighborhood, or to Jerusalem. Mulu loves Israel, she tells me—it’s her home now. But not everyone here loves the Ethiopians back.

Continue reading on Roads and Kingdoms

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Miriam Berger is a journalist with a focus on the Middle East and Africa who is working on a year-long project on the Cairo metro. She previously reported for BuzzFeed World, and is pursuing a master’s at Oxford University. Check out more of her freelance work at miriamaberger.com.

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