By Julia Antenucci Photos by Brandon Vick
It’s really hard to discern what healthy even means anymore. In a world where majority of our groceries come in glossy, colorful packaging that hosts a myriad of promising health claims on the labels, it’s clear we’re living in a nutritionally deceptive time. But tucked in the corner of South Clinton in the charmingly earnest neighborhood that is Swillburg, you’ll find Zemeta, an establishment that embraces all facets of healthful living without even trying.
When it comes to Ethiopian fare, Zemeta is as authentic as it gets. Opened in 2013 by Nathaniel Beshah and his wife, Zemeta, the small and welcoming restaurant has quickly become a mainstay in the area.
Beshah came to America 10 years ago with nothing but the promise of starting over. For his first job, he actually worked as a dishwasher in the very building that his restaurant stands – but at the time, it was an Indian restaurant. Looking back, Beshah is amazed how it all worked out.
“Can you believe it? I was making minimum wage in someone else’s kitchen, and now here we are. My dream.”
Zemeta started as a to-go food service at the couple’s hookah bar’s check-out counter. Customers suggested that they open a restaurant and slowly but surely, the dream became a reality.
“People basically forced me to open this business,” he said with a laugh.
And clearly, it was a good idea. Now, the establishment has a steady stream of guests. On Fridays and Saturdays, Zemeta hosts an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet. These are the restaurant’s busiest days.
Every other day of the week, Zemeta offers a straightforward yet flavorful menu of traditional Ethiopian fare. Like precious gems, the stewed meats and vegetables native to this cuisine are often brilliant colors – from vibrant yellows to blazing reds – this is largely because of the spices present in the dishes. The key to the Ethiopian flavor profile is the berbere spice mix, comprised of semi-spicy chili peppers, mixed with as many as 20 other spices, including garlic, cumin, ginger and fenugreek, to name a few.
And yes, Ethiopian food is spicy. Almost every dish served has a kick, but it’s far from meaningless spice. Rather, the stewed meats and vegetables are slow-cooked in various spices, giving the dishes time to build complex layers of flavor and depth. Luckily, the joint is BYOB, so paired with a crisp Fingerlakes Riesling of choice, the food should go down quite nicely.
Nathaniel and Zemeta refuse to cut any corners when it comes to their food, and because of this, make everything from scratch. From the bread to the cheese to the butter to the injera. Many of the dishes are also slow-cooked in order to achieve a complexity in flavor.
And this very process is what makes the food at Zemeta so healthy. It’s the time and the care. Take the injera, for instance. Unlike bread leavened with store-bought yeast, home-cultivated fermentation – or starters – offer a myriad of health benefits for the eater. From improved digestion to healthier gut bacteria, naturally fermented bread has a number of vitamins and minerals that aren’t found in your typical store-bought loaf. And injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread served at the restaurant, is a marvel to both the eye and the tongue. Almost gauzelike in aesthetic, injera is a naturally gluten-free bread, made traditionally from a grain called tef that’s exclusively grown in Ethiopia. Every day, the tiny tef grains are ground to a flour, and they are then mixed with water and left to ferment in a heat-controlled area overnight. The final product is a soft, spongy, and wonderfully tangy flatbread, sturdy enough to sop up the various wats – or stews – present in each individual dish.
Nathaniel and Zemeta don’t do these things because it’s trendy or hip, they do it because it’s the right way. You won’t find any microwaves or canned foods in the pantry of the restaurant’s kitchen. Every vegetable, meat, and spice is processed on-site. Even the green coffee beans – sourced directly from Ethiopia – are roasted daily and are prepared in the traditional Ethiopian way. The chai tea, a beautiful cacophony of aromatic, sweet, and slightly spicy flavors, are made from spices that are ground on site. Nathaniel lays them out in front of me on a platter, as if they were precious jewels.
Each platter Zemeta set before me was truly a feast for the eyes. Take the vegetarian combo platter, a mix of various vegetarian wats, accompanied with several sheets of rolled injera and a myriad of fresh and cooked vegetables for accompaniment. The platter was enormous, and could easily feed two people. From the creamy, flavorful shiro, a mix of chickpea flour and spices, to the glistening red, slow-burning misr wat red lentils, each stew on the plate was lively and unique. Using the injera as a utensil, I was able to play maestro over my colorful palette of wats mixing and matching the spicy mir wat with the tang of the injera, followed by a cooling and refreshing bite of lightly dressed greens.
Then there’s a doro wat, chicken stewed in a spicy sauce consisting of berbere, red onions, and chicken, and is accompanied by a hardboiled egg. The stew is a brilliant red, with meat so tender that it falls off the bone. On the tongue, the flavor is complex and slow-burning. The egg provides a creamy and unexpected respite for the tongue. Nathaniel tells me that in Ethiopia, doro wat is typically only served on special occasions, due to its intensive preparations. But here, one can enjoy the special dish any day of the week.
And in the small Ethiopian community within Rochester, many come to Zemeta seeking the familiarity, flavor, and comforts of home.
“People come here and tell us that the food tastes just like home,” Nathaniel said.
And with the sense of community fostered in the small, friendly space, it’s hard not to feel at home. After all, it’s difficult to stay glued to your phone when you’re busy scooping lentils into your piece of injera. While it might be unusual for many Western diners, the act of eating with your hands on a shared plate facilitates an eating experience that forces you to not only be engaged with the food itself, but with who you’re sharing your plate with, too.
And really, what’s healthier than that?