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Yeshi Demisse slow-cooks an Ethiopian blend of flavors and traditions

Chef Yeshi Demisse, Owner of The Nile
Chef Yeshi Demisse, Owner of The Nile (Image: Yeshi)

In Ethiopia, sharing a meal isn’t just a nice way to relax with family or catch up with friends. It can be a real commitment.  

“If a friend disappoints you,” said Yeshi Demisse, “there’s a saying, ‘But didn’t we share a meal together?’” 

Demisse has owned Richmond’s Nile restaurant since 2006, bringing the unique flavors of her East African home to central Virginia. 

“It’s a very aromatic and flavorful cuisine,” she said. “And it takes time. It cannot be rushed.” 

That made it difficult to choose a dish for her cooking demonstration at the July 2 “Great American Recipe” event in Richmond. She finally settled on Ethiopia’s national dish: doro wat, a spiced chicken stew.

“Preparing the kulet, the onion base of the stew, takes hours to simmer with the spices,” she said. Spices are at the heart of Nile’s kitchen, as well as the aroma wafting out of its doors.

“To get started with Ethiopian cooking, the main things are ginger and garlic,” Demisse said. “And you can find some other spices at Indian stores. Some of the flavors are very similar to Indian food.”

The taste most closely associated with Ethiopian food is berbere, a blend of peppers, coriander, fenugreek and other spices. It adds heat and flavor to dishes, along with a fiery red color. 

Although some recipes contain chicken, beef or lamb, Ethiopian food is especially prized among vegans for its plant-based dishes. Peas, lentils, potatoes, mushrooms and cabbage are the stars of some of Nile’s most popular entrees, which Demisse said are reflective of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christian culture. 

“There are more than 200 days of fasting every year,” she said. “On those days, only a vegan diet is allowed. Some don’t eat at all until about 3 p.m., but when they do it’s always vegan.” 

Along with veganism, gut health is a relatively new fascination for Western consumers. But it too has been a staple of the Ethiopian diet for generations. Siljo, a paste of fermented fava beans, is teeming with probiotics to aid digestion and boost immunity.  

“Fermentation is a big thing in the Western world now,” said  Demisse. “But it’s ancient to us.” 

She pointed out that Ethiopian cuisine is also friendly to the growing population of gluten-free foodies. Each meal is served with injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread made from an ancient East African grain called teff. 

“The traditional way is to tear some off and scoop your food up with it,” said  Demisse. “It is a sign of respect and affection to make a morsel that way and feed it to the other person.” 

With all its traditions and health benefits, the chef said, the bottom line is that Ethiopian food is delicious. She enjoys seeing customers intrigued by the aromas when they enter, and then delighted by the tastes and textures as they eat. 

“It’s very addictive, very unique and very tasty,” she said. “I have never served anyone who didn’t love it.” 

On July 2 at 11:00am join Chef Yeshi at the RVA Big Market at Bryan Park for a cooking demonstration of her Doro Wat, an Ethiopian National dish, sample the recipe and hear stories of how her culture inspired her flavors and techniques.