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A TASTE OF ETHIOPIA

Zagol offers a dining experience beyond The Biggest Little City's borders.

WRITTEN BY SANDRA MACIAS
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS

It's downtime at Zagol Ethiopian Restaurant. Lunch is over and dinner three hours away. But Shita Yenenh, Zagol's owner-chef, isn't taking a breather. In the kitchen, she is making injera, a crepe-like, sourdough flatbread, the backbone of Ethiopian cuisine.

At her workhorse stove, a measuring cup in one hand, a bucket-size container of batter at her feet, Yenenh dips into the batter, pouring it in a hot skillet. Moments later, the injera is ready. With an Ethiopian basket, she scoops up the bread and slips it on a cloth-covered table to cool.

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Yenenh, who is all of 4 feet 10 inches tall, is a multi-tasking giant. She's the server, the cook, the manager, even the cleaner-upper.

"This is my passion," she says, sweeping her arms to include kitchen and all. "This is my dream since I was a little girl."

Yenenh, a self-taught chef, keeps a from-scratch kitchen. Some entrées are made to order while others, such as slow-cooked stews, get personal attention under Yenenh's hand. She buys all her special spices on trips to Ethiopia, stuffing them in an extra suitcase to bring home to Reno. But her source for teff flour, injera's main ingredient, is closer to home at Desert Oasis Teff in Fallon.

Zagol, the first and only Ethiopian restaurant in Reno, speaks in African tones. Background music of African rhythms sets the atmosphere along with real cooking aromas emanating from the kitchen. Interior colors add extra warmth — walls are painted in tones ranging from okra to chile red and the cement floor is the color of dark, rich soil. Décor is simple: Ethiopian folk art and musical gourds, beaded with white cowrie shells, known as zagols in Yenenh's native Ethiopia.

A communal meal

An Ethiopian meal is a communal affair. And so it is at Zagol. Your food is served, arranged on top of the injera, to be shared by all. The protocol is to eat with your fingers. (A fork will be provided on request.) You break off a piece of injera, and, using it like a tortilla, scoop up a portion of food and pop it in your mouth.

Ethiopian cuisine isn't shy about flavor. Commonly used ingredients — ginger, garlic, onions, and berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend of chili pepper and 10 or more spices — are the foundation of spicy meat and chicken wats, or stews, and tasty vegetarian dishes.

Diverse flavors and heat

Try the popular dish gored gored. Cubed beef is sautéed in herb-infused purified butter (akin to India's ghee) and berbere. With its bold flavors and heat, gored gored is a satisfying treat for spicy-hot palates. Two other popular spicy beef dishes are zilzil tibs and key wat. For gentler palates, try the beef stew called alicha.

Another tasty candidate is ye doro wat, a traditional slow-cooked chicken stew that Ethiopians reserve for special occasions and honored guests. Its red chili sauce, aromatic with onions and pungent spices, is rich and mildly hot and sweet all at the same time. Smudge that hard-boiled egg, served with the stew, in the sauce. An egg never tasted better.

Vegetarian dishes include collard greens, lentils, and yellow split peas. Not to be missed is kilkil, a dish of fresh green beans with carrots and onions. These humble vegetables, slowly braised with garlic, ginger, and fragrant spices, emerge amazingly delicious.

As for libations, you could stick with water. Or do as the Ethiopians do: order an Ethiopian beer. (Bud, Miller, and Heineken also are available.) For wine folks, the genuine choice is tej, or honey wine, which isn't sweet but potent. Or select from four varietals of house wine. Spiced Ethiopian tea, hot or iced, also is a good choice.

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As for coffee? Who knows better than the Ethiopians, who introduced it to the world. You couldn't go wrong ending your meal with Ethiopian coffee and Yenenh's homemade baklava.

Food writer Sandra Macias has enjoyed more than a few delicious hours at Zagol's table. Her only problem: filling up too quickly with those injera taco-like bites. Eventually, she asks for a fork, risking a scowl from Shita.

(The following recipe, which is on the menu at Zagol Ethiopian Restaurant, is courtesy of Shita Yenenh, who adapted it for the home cook. Serves 4 – 6)

Mesir Wat

2 cups lentils (red preferred), picked over and rinsed

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped

3 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)

Salt

In a medium saucepan, cover the lentils with about 1 inch of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Stir occasionally to avoid scorching on the bottom, and add more water if it gets low.

Meanwhile, in a blender or mini-food processor, purée the onion, garlic, and ginger.

Heat the butter or oil over a medium flame in a small skillet. Add the chili powder, turmeric, and cayenne and fry for 30 seconds. Add the onion mixture and fry for about 10 minutes, until rather dry and lightly browned.

Scrape the mixture from the skillet into the lentils and add about ½ teaspoon of salt. Continue to simmer until the lentils are fully puréed. The total time of cooking the lentils to get mushy will be about 40 minutes. Add water if too thick, or cook a little longer if too thin. Taste and adjust seasonings.

RESOURCES

Zagol Ethiopian Restaurant
855 E. Fourth St., Reno
775-786-9020, www.Zagolofreno.com
Open for lunch noon – 3 p.m. and dinner 5 – 9 p.m. Tues. – Sat.
Open for breakfast, high tea, and lunch 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sun.; dinner Sunday, by reservation only
Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony (tableside service, complete with roasting coffee beans), by reservation only

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