In an increasingly fast-paced world, restauranteur Zeleke Belete of Zoma cherishes the Ethiopian tradition of communal eating. These customs create a welcoming space, where food is lovingly made and traditions kept vibrant. Zoma boasts bright colors, sounds, and scents reminiscent of Zeleke’s home. Ethiopian music plays on a screen in the background, showcasing the elaborate dance routines of the country’s various tribes. Oil paintings of figures in traditional dress line the soft pastel green walls.
For the lunch special, I selected the misir kik, a spicy red lentil stew, and the alicha wat, a mild beef stew. Both came on a bed of injera, the sour spongy bread that forms the foundation of each dish. A wreath of injera rolls surrounds the two mounds. The hearty portion satisfies both my greed and desire for leftovers. The first bite of the beef stew, pinched between a ravenously torn piece of injera, is pure savory warmth. Caramelized onion, ginger, and garlic permeate the tender beef cubes and infuse into the injera base. My first bite of lentils is a fiery hit of flavor, an instant exhilarating rush that brings sweat to my nose and upper lip. Only after tasting the lentils did I fully appreciate the milder, sweeter notes of the beef stew.
Ethiopian food uses lots of onions. Zeleke smiles, recounting the shock on distributors’ faces when they see the fifteen to twenty bags of onions he and his family purchase each week.
During his trips back to Ethiopia, Zeleke and his family stock up on organic spices from home. Spices are the essence of Ethiopian cuisine: among them, red pepper, cardamom, ginger, garlic, and turmeric in different combinations create complex warmth. The order of spices is essential in shaping the flavor profile of each dish. Zeleke explains that when you add garlic to the beef stew, it makes all the difference in the balance of flavors.
Injera is an Ethiopian restaurant’s barometer of success. The spongy starch is made of teff, an Ethiopian grain, and a unique fermentation process creates the signature sour flavor and tiny holes on the surface. Like sourdough, injera requires a starter, or a base culture of yeast, flour, and water used to flavor and ferment a bread product. Unfamiliar to many Western flavor palates, sourness in injera is embraced - in fact, the more sour, the better. Getting the flavor and texture is a finicky chemistry, so when a restaurant finds the right formula, it’s like striking gold. Zeleke shared that the starter for Zoma’s injera came an Ethiopian restaurant in Columbus, and the recipe for their injera is a trade secret. “I wouldn’t give away the recipe for a million dollars.”
In addition to their food offerings, every Sunday the restaurant hosts a coffee ceremony. Zoma roasts their own beans, adding additional depth of flavor with cardamom and cloves. Ethiopian coffee has a concentrated intensity and aroma foreign to many US coffee drinkers who have grown accustomed to sugar-loaded, venti brews. Its portions are served in small cups, inviting drinkers to savor each sip. “Back home, if your neighbor hears you setting up for coffee, you know they’ll be over in a matter of minutes to pay you a visit.” Zoma’s coffee ceremony hearkens back to the coffee shops that line the streets of Addis Ababa, inviting passersby to sit and share a moment of their day.
After applying for the immigrant visa lottery, Zeleke immigrated to the US in 2005 with his wife and family. Together with his wife, sister, and mother in law, they opened up Zoma in December 2016, taking the name from Zeleke’s mother’s birthplace. Zeleke’s roots are in the countryside, about 180 kilometers outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
For Zeleke and his family, hard work and long hours are essential. Language barriers, cultural differences, and social isolation were among the initial challenges Zeleke faced when he came to America. But as long as one is willing to put in the work, he believes success will follow.
For new immigrants, he emphasizes the importance of hard work and persistence. He recalls the initially struggling to learn English, but this attitude pushed him to improve. “Some people are afraid to speak English because they think people will judge them. I don’t care – I still try. How else do you learn?”
However, his best advice to new arrivals is to “know your limits;” in other words, to respect the boundaries of one’s physical and mental abilities. “You must not lose sight of family, relationships – the important things in life.”
Zeleke is hopeful for the future. Coming up on the two-year anniversary of its debut, Zoma has captivated locals looking for authentic Ethiopian fare. Zeleke plans to expand the restaurant and add additional traditional seating arrangements to accommodate more guests. Here at Zoma, his philosophy in life and in his food is to emphasize quality over quantity: “if you take care of your customers, they’ll come back.”
About the Author:
Valerie is a proud daughter of immigrants and she believes food is a powerful way to bring people together. She is a nurse based in the greater Cleveland area, and is looking forward to more meals and insightful conversations. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
2240 Lee Road Cleveland, OH 44118.