Hirut Yibsa, a striking woman with the gracious air of an aristocratic host, owns and runs Addis Grocery and Deli. She was born in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Her father worked for the government of emperor Haile Selassie, and her mother owned and managed a restaurant. Neither Yibsa nor her mother cooked. 'In Ethiopia, if you have money you don't cook anything,' she says. When she was a child, though, she watched the cooks in her mother's restaurant closely. She learned how to cook the Ethiopian specialties that she now serves at Addis.
In 1984, Yibsa left Ethiopia. After studying computer science in Canada and Atlanta, she found a job near her brother in New Orleans. There was no Ethiopian food in New Orleans, however, so she bought the little grocery store on Magazine Street last summer and gave up computers for cooking.
Yibsa serves all the Ethiopian dishes at Addis on a platter with large rounds of flat injera bread folded like cloth napkins and tucked along the edges. Injera is the only utensil needed at an Ethiopian meal -- tear off a piece and scoop up a mouthful of meat or vegetables. Injera is an assertive sourdough bread made with teff, a small cereal grain native to northern Africa with a mild nutty flavor; the bread has an elastic texture and on one side a pocked surface like a sea sponge. Yibsa makes the injera batter every three days and each morning bakes a fresh batch.
Addis' specialty is kitfo, a bright red steak tartare. Kitfo 'is the best in Ethiopia; it's like No. 1,' says Yibsa. It was also the specialty of the restaurant run by Yibsa's mother, because she was a member of the Gurage tribe that claims kitfo as its own.
Yibsa grinds the meat to order and mixes it with mitmita, or chili powder, and niter kebbeh, a clarified butter flavored with garlic, ginger and spices. Ethiopian cuisine uses a collection of spices -- nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and turmeric -- similar to those found in Indian food. Unlike Indian cuisine, in which the spices can dominate a dish, in Yibsa's Ethiopian cooking these flavors take a supporting role. The main ingredient -- whether it's ground beef in the kitfo or lentils in a vegetarian dish -- takes the spotlight.
I prefer raw kitfo; the smooth paste, with its sharp spiciness, doesn't overwhelm the injera's sourdough taste. Yibsa says that 90 percent of her customers, however, ask her to cook the meat, a style of kitfo known as 'lub-lub.' The chili peppers become hotter in the kitfo when it's cooked, and someone not willing to brave raw meat should be prepared to swallow some serious heat. Tibs might be a safer choice for those averse to raw or lightly cooked beef. Chunks of tender sirloin are sauteed with diced onions and rounds of jalapeno peppers.
The vegetarian platter of pastel orange- and yellow-colored dishes looks like an artist's paint-smeared palette. The cabbage dish, sweet but balanced with sourness and ginger, has a few soft chunks of boiled potatoes to add creaminess. It can be addictive. Berbere, a traditional red pepper spice dip, adds heat to the moist lentils. The mild yellow split peas taste of ginger and garlic. Like the meat dishes, the vegetarian dishes are in small pieces or smooth like a thick sauce so that they can be scooped up with the injera.
I ate kitfo one afternoon in the spotless yellow and wine-red room and listened to the catchy Ethiopian pop music on the stereo. Yibsa promises me that if customers enjoy her food, she will expand Addis by adding new dishes like doro wat, a type of chicken stew, and maybe even lamb. She also says she will roll away the refrigerators filled with beer and soda to make room for extra tables. I bet I won't be the only person to stand up and cheer when Addis finally sheds the last vestiges of the corner grocery and becomes a bustling Ethiopian restaurant with a long menu.