Tantalizing aromas welcome the nose when entering Queen Sheba Ethiopian restaurant while soothing colors greet the eyes.
Restaurateur Zion Taddese doesn’t just want to feed her customers’ bellies, she wants to enrich their souls with culture and heal their bodies with healthful food.
“Back home in Ethiopia, food is your medication,” she said. “In Ethiopia, food is the most important thing for a human being because that’s what we depend on for our health, our wellbeing -- mentally physically even spiritually.”
Taddese, native to Ethiopia, has been at her Broadway location for more than a decade. She first opened her popular Sacramento eatery on Howe Avenue, but when she realized many of her customers were coming from Midtown and surrounding neighborhoods, she started looking around for an open storefront.
Translating a cuisine to another country can be as tricky as translating a poem or novel. Purists might complain of changes and tweaks to favorite dishes, but those changes and tweaks might bring someone unfamiliar to Ethiopian food to the table.
Taddese explained that in her Americanized versions of beloved Ethiopian dishes, she uses Ethiopian cooking techniques and principles, while modifying ingredients and amount of spice to suit common American tastes.
The "backbone" of Ethiopian cuisine is berbere, an aromatic blend of spices that proves too hot for some American palates. Taddese has created some dishes for broader appeal.
Although many Ethiopian dishes are vegetarian, their protein content comes mainly from beans like lentils. Tofu is not traditionally used in Ethiopian cooking, but Taddese created a popular tofu dish to increase her vegetarian menu options.
Ethiopian cuisine is rooted in centuries-old traditions of procuring and preparing food. Fast food is not a thing in Ethiopia, where loving care is taken in preparing the day’s meals.
At Queen Sheba, the cook arrives early each day to make the injera, which is served fresh in neat little rolls of bread strips to be held in one hand, tearing off bite-sized pieces with the other and using it to scoop up the food.
The bread, called injera, is as authentic as she can make it, but there has been a slight modification, caused by availability of ingredients.
In its most traditional form, injera is gluten free, made with a grain called teff. However, since gluten free diets became fashionable, teff has become more expensive and harder to procure. So she mixes in barley, which has a small amount of gluten, to make the teff go farther. She still bakes a small amount of gluten-free injera for her gluten-intolerant customers.
Injera, also called Moses bread in a nod to its ancient origins, is thin like a tortilla, springy enough to use to pick up morsels of the tender meat or vegetable, but strong enough to transport the morsels from plate to mouth. That it also deliciously accents the stew-like menu offerings is part of the experience that gets newcomers to the cuisine hooked.
The end result for Taddese is a restaurant with enduring appeal. Even during the darkest point of the recession, Queen Sheba stayed afloat.
“My customers are very, very loyal,” she said. “I think that’s the reason I’m still here.”