When the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon in Jerusalem, she arrived in a phalanx of gilded caravans, dripping with gold and jewels. Everywhere she went, the smoky scent of spices and oils wafted after her like perfume, oozing from the depths of her tents and her purple robes and her servants’ skin.
Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba was from Ethiopia and had a son with Solomon, who went on to build the Ethiopian dynasty. Even today she lives on in the hearts of her countrymen, and in their cuisine, which is thick and threaded with smoky glamour.
Located in Capitol Hill at 916 E. John St., Queen Sheba, the restaurant, serves up traditional Ethiopian cuisine that’s both true to its namesake and accessible to those voyaging into uncharted territory.
Inside, dark wood tables and the gold threads in crimson window curtains glint in the warm golden light. One step inside the front door steamed over with heat, the cloying incense of peppers, “berbere” and “injera” clings to your nostrils and the inside of your throat.
Ethiopian meals are traditionally served in a communal setting with the food shared on a single platter. The staple of the meal is injera, a flat and spongy bread similar in texture to a crepe but beige and riddled with bubbles. Made from a type of flour called “teff,” injera batter is slightly fermented before it’s cooked to achieve the bubbles and a tangy sourdough taste.
Laid flat on a platter, injera is piled with an arrangement of thick sauces. Queen Sheba’s kitchen offers a variety of meat, vegetarian and even vegan options, which can be mixed and matched by choice from the menu.
Among the most popular is “lega tibs,” cubes of tender beef sautéed in a rich concoction of spices and stewed with chopped tomato and jalapeño. Essential to Ethiopian cooking is the traditional spice berbere, matured chili pepper ground with a bouquet of other spices including garlic, ginger, basil and rue. It can be prepared spicy or quite mild, a choice Queen Sheba helpfully distinguishes and advertises on their menu.
Among a host of smoky and rich flavors, a cool green bite of “gomen” — closely chopped greens sautéed with olive oil, garlic and onion — refreshes and soothes the palate. Also common are crushed lentils with various spices, simple pastes which offer a break from the sometimes overwhelming spice.
Traditionally, injera and its toppings are eaten by hand, tearing off a strip of the flat bread and scooping up the sauce. It’s culturally savvy to eat with only one hand and avoid touching your mouth with fingers, but the only way to really show off your unfamiliarity is with silverware. Queen Sheba will readily provide it if asked but doesn’t place utensils on the table, and the experience is best enjoyed by hand.
Perhaps the most distinctive, and curious, of toppings is “doro wott.” A chicken drumstick is marinated until succulent in an oily base of red peppers and onion, and the meat is pulled off in pieces with injera. It’s crowned with a peeled hardboiled egg, tinged rust-colored from the vibrant spices and intended to be broken and mixed among the sauce. Initially intimidating, this ingenious concoction of crumbling yolk, tender meat, and chunky sauce is worth the preliminary squeamishness.
Ordering at Queen Sheba, or at any restaurant where English is not the first language, can be daunting, but one of the simplest and best options are combination platters, which combine several of the most popular meat or vegetarian options onto one plate of injera. They’re economical too, including four and five toppings for the price of two, and can easily serve a hungry pair or a dubious three.
The spongy texture of injera makes it perfect for sopping up the last bits of oil and sauce on the bottom of the platter, and Ethiopians have no qualms about finishing the last bite. In fact, it’s more rude to leave food or react strongly when it’s brought.
For those who manage to save room, Ethiopia’s also home to some of the best coffee in the world, and Queen Sheba is no exception. Resist the urge to doctor it up with cream or sugar; the chocolaty fruitiness of fresh beans is more than enough to awake the last of your dormant tastebuds and keep you alert for hours.
Thanks to a stint of Italian occupation during World War II, Ethiopians are also skilled with Italian desserts like tiramisu.
The key in Ethiopian cuisine is a lack of fear and a love of good flavors. In general, Queen Sheba’s injera and spices are milder than the robust fire of authentic cuisine. This makes them more accessible to intrepid, experimental customers, but those seeking vivid and searing flavor may be disappointed.
Nonetheless, it’s a sparkling gem of the Queen of Sheba’s land tucked away but certainly worth the visit.
When the Queen returned from Jerusalem, she was in awe of Solomon’s wealth, wisdom and power. Emerging from the golden light of Queen Sheba, with the perfume of berbere and sour bread still slick on your hands, you’ll be amazed as well.