From Ethiopia to Ithaca: a new ethnic cuisine comes to the Commons

The waitress swoops over with a plate of unidentified earthy-colored stews—called wot—spread atop a piece of flat, sour-like fermented pancake, and places it on the table. The two diners hand-rip pieces of this bread—called injera—to scoop chunks of spiced lentils, meat, and vegetables into their mouths. Every table in Hawi Ethiopian Cuisine in the Ithaca Commons is buzzing with people.

Though the small staff and minimal setup hint that the restaurant has only been open since March 11, the crowd of people inside suggests otherwise.

“It’s a small town so the word has spread quickly,” said Aelaf Tafesse, a waiter at Hawi. “But people were coming in before we had a sign.”

Hawi has been busy every night, said co-owner Citra Mohammed. She moved to Ithaca just three weeks prior to the opening with Tafesse and Gedese Degebasa, co-owner and head chef. All three are Ethiopian natives who previously worked together at an Ethiopian restaurant in New York City. After two years, Mohammed and Degebasa decided to open one of their own.

“We started planning and looking for locations and I came across Ithaca as a college town,” Mohammed said. “We came to visit before we found this location and I really liked it… how it’s a small, close community and still there are so many international things going on and people from different places.”

Hawi is the only Ethiopian restaurant in the area. Rochester has several—including Nile Restaurant, Zemeta Ethiopian Restaurant and Abyssinia Ethiopian—which were previously the closest Ethiopian options.

“We saw a lot of ethnic restaurants here and thought we could serve the people another flavor they would like,” Lafesse said.

Ethiopian food traditionally consists of injera bread topped with wot, which can be made with meats, spices (such as berbere and paprika) and pulses (which include lentils, split peas and beans). The plate of food is typically shared among the table, and diners use their hands to scoop wot up with the injera. Tafesse said that while most customers have eaten Ethiopian food before, there is extra pressure to make sure people new to the cuisine will love the food.

Amber Gilewski, owner of Tuxedo Cat Bed & Breakfast and a certified natural chef, has already been to Hawi twice, and plans to go again soon.

“I think the restaurant here is just as good, if not better, than some of those restaurants I’ve been to in bigger cities,” Gilewski said, having eaten Ethiopian food numerous times in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

For the first three days of business, Mohammed, Degebasa and Tafesse were the only three on staff. This made the surge of business difficult to keep up with.

“Even though it’s busy and service isn’t great, people are so supportive,” Tafesse said. “We thank the people and ask them to be a little patient with us to get everything together.”

Mohammed said they plan to expand and adjust the menu, as well as hire more people to satisfy the high demand.

“Hopefully there will be more Ethiopian restaurants in the future as well,” said Mohammed. “Because they will see the reaction people have towards this place, so there will be other options too.”

Although the style of Ethiopian cuisine is a bit different, Gilewski encourages people to give it a try. After she had it a few times, she said she began to crave it.

“When I first tried Ethiopian, to be honest, I was a little hesitant,” Gilewski said. “Just go be adventurous… It’s just a fun way to enjoy your food that I don’t think most Americans are used to.”

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