Vegetarian or meat-filled, you’ll find exotic flavors and new favorites here – plus the coffee!
By Linda H. Lamb
Hanna Tsegaye couldn’t find a restaurant that offered exactly what she wanted: a no-frills atmosphere where she could enjoy the warm spices and flavorful variety of foods she grew up with in Ethiopia.
So she decided to create her own.
The result is Harambe, an unpretentious place where incense mingles with the inviting aromas of a cuisine that’s probably unfamiliar to many in the Midlands. Who knew there was a culinary adventure just steps from Harden Street in Five Points?
Known for thick, savory, meaty stews, Ethiopian cuisine also offers interesting options for vegans and vegetarians. That’s one of its attractions for the college crowd, Tsegaye says.
“The students are crazy about the vegetarian platter,” she says, presenting an artful collection of red lentils, yellow split peas, a tangy cabbage dish and collard greens arranged around a house salad.
You say you don’t really enjoy collards? You find collards unpleasantly bitter? You hate collards? Try these collards (gomen), gently flavored with onion, garlic and jalapeno. They might be the first collard greens you like.
“Everybody says that!” Tsegaye says, laughing.
A distinctive and fun aspect of Ethiopian food is how you eat it. Entrees are served on a thin, spongy, flatbread called injera. It resembles a crepe that’s bubbly on one side and hasn’t been flipped over. You tear off bits of the bread and use it as a utensil, scooping up foods and popping them into your mouth. (Yes, you can ask for a fork.)
Tsegaye, 42, was raised in Addis Ababa, the sprawling capital of the east African nation. She says centuries of varied influences have resulted in food options with elements familiar to almost every modern diner. For example, her menu includes authentic vegetable samosas, curries, chickpea dishes and even baklava.
A signature flavor is berbere, a seasoning mixture of Ethiopian chile powder and other spices. It gives a comforting depth to Tsegaye’s chicken curry – or try her version of a berbere burger to sample the spice in the familiar surroundings of a hamburger bun.
A beef and onion stew simmered with rosemary (zilzil tibs) was another savory highlight, and the satisfyingly spicy red lentil dish (miser keywot) stood out among the vegetarian offerings. You can request more or less spicy heat, depending on your cravings.
There’s a gluten-free option with the injera bread – just call and request it the day before. The unique, slightly sour bread traditionally is made with teff grain, and the all-teff version is gluten-free. Tsegaye usually makes her injera with a blend of flours, however: millet, teff, barley and wheat.
“The bread is different,” she says. “But most of our customers enjoy it – even the first time.”
Tsegaye came to the United States in 2010, settling first with a sister in Seattle, where she ran a small deli and coffee shop. After a visit with friends in Columbia, she decided to take on the challenge of adding a new option to the eateries downtown in 2013. Currently, she’s mixing it up foodwise, offering several options like the berbere burger that incorporate flavors of her homeland with typical restaurant fare. Would you believe a berbere chicken quesadilla?
Ethiopia is known as the birthplace of homo sapiens, Rastafarianism, and most importantly, coffee. That’s one thing Tsegaye keeps traditional: She uses Ethiopian beans, roasting and grinding them on site.
“Our coffee is strong,” she warns. “It’s like espresso.”
A cup or two with her homemade baklava, crunchy with walnuts and oozing with honey, is the perfect ending to a fun meal at Harambe.
Harambe Ethiopian Restaurant
2006 Senate St., Columbia (It’s just west of Harden Street, near the Cook Out and Food Lion.)
Hours: Tues-Sat, 11am-10pm
Takeout is available. Cozy tables as well as ample space for a party. Full bar with three TVs.