Austin in a Pocket: Taste of Ethiopia II
Through imported spices, woven baskets and a rich heritage, owner Woinee Mariam brings authentic Ethiopian cuisine to South Congress.
By Regine Malibiran
Photographs by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Dining at Taste of Ethiopia II (3801 South Congress Ave, #107) feels like visiting a best friend’s home for dinner. Warm colors and the smell of earthy spices permeate the restaurant. On top of and between the dining tables are woven baskets called mesob, which Ethiopians have used to dine from for centuries.
Taste of Ethiopia II is Woinee Mariam’s second restaurant. Her first, Taste of Ethiopia, opened in 2011 in Pflugerville. Mariam immigrated from Ethiopia to Washington, D.C. at 16 years old with one of her sisters to pursue her education. She’d been helping her mom cook for years, but her first foray into the restaurant business was at Copeland’s of New Orleans in Washington, D.C.
“I used to always go in the back during my break time or my lunch. I used to stand and watch them cook,” recalls Mariam. “One day, a few cooks didn’t show up so I told them, ‘I know how to cook all that.’ I took off from there.”
As one of ten children, Mariam grew up helping her parents with household chores. When it was time to prepare family meals, her duty was to make injera, a bike wheel sized flatbread made from gluten-free teff flour.
“Everybody had something to do. There were no such things as weekends,” says Mariam. “You’d have a book in one hand but still be making something in the house with the other.”
Mariam has been using the technique she learned in her mother’s kitchen to hand make injera from scratch for almost a decade in her restaurants. The bread is Ethiopia’s national dish and is traditionally served family style on a large tray. In lieu of spoons and forks, Ethiopians use the bread to scoop up their food to eat.
“You don’t eat by yourself. You always wait for somebody to be with you,” says Mariam. “You share the same platter. I believe that eating together keeps you together.”
At the front of the restaurant Mariam writes an Ethiopian word of the day to share her language and culture with customers. Her favorite phrase on the board thus far is gursha, which refers to the warm, intimate act of rolling up a piece of injera with food and feeding someone else by hand.
Mariam describes Ethiopian cuisine as “healthy, tasty and colorful” and nothing embodies these qualities more than Taste of Ethiopia’s vegetarian platter. Diners can choose from an assortment of vegetables, including collard greens, split lentils, string beans, cabbage and eggplant.
Ethiopians’ traditional pocket food is the sambusa, which are stuffed triangle pastries. Taste of Ethiopia offers sambusa in three varieties: beef, lentil or spinach. The fillings are seasoned with onion, garlic, jalapeño and salt then wrapped in a thin, crisp dough and pan-fried. Mariam serves sambusas with a homemade tomato-based sauce.
Rooted in a culture of generosity and hospitality, Mariam is committed to sharing authentic Ethiopian food with her customers. She uses her own yeast starter to make injera and has been importing spices from Ethiopia since her first restaurant opening.
“Whenever I need spices, I get them from my cousins and my aunts,” says Mariam. “I call them and ask, ‘How much will this be?’”
Through her restaurants, Mariam is passing down the culinary legacy of generations of her family’s matriarchs. As a mother herself she encourages other women to prioritize the dreams they have for themselves.
“I’m living my dream. I wanted to have my own business, my own restaurant, since I was a kid. The first time I was hired as a hostess at a restaurant I said, ‘One day I’m going to own one of these,’ ” Mariam says. “I have three kids. I still fulfilled my dream. As a mother, as a wife, as a woman, we can do that.”
The World in a Pocket is dedicated to exploring the world through the lens of a dumpling. From mandu to empanadas, spanakopita to gyoza, pierogi to Pop-Tarts, this is our love letter to pockets worldwide and the stories they tell. These beloved staples all share a similar food-inside-of-food structure, while providing a delicious way to understand our world. We are excited to bring TRIBEZA readers Austin in a Pocket, where Regine Malibiran has teamed up with TWIP co-founder and photographer Mackenzie Smith Kelley to shine a light on local pocket makers.