If you're ever in the mood for a food adventure, try the Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa. That's where you'll get your fill of Doro Wot (chicken stew), Ye Beg Wot (lamb stew), Ye Kik Alecha (stewed yellow split peas), Gomen (collard greens) and, of course, Injera, a spongy bread used to scoop food.
While the foreign names may make the food sound exotic, these dishes are common in many Ethiopian homes and reflect the everyday cooking of owner Seble Gizaw's mother and family.
Vegetables dominate the cuisine and include beans, lentils, carrots, potatoes, collard greens, cabbage and okra. Just about every dish starts with ginger, garlic and onions. Chicken, beef and lamb figure prominently on the Queen of Sheba menu and in Ethiopian homes that can afford meat.
"At home, goat is also common. But that isn't so popular here yet," said Gizaw, who opened Queen of Sheba in 2007 and imports certain spices and ingredients directly from her homeland.
But nothing defines the flavor of Ethiopian cooking like the spice blend known as berbere. Gizaw, 52, who lives in Tampa, couldn't cook without it. We asked her more about Ethiopian hospitality, especially the ceremonial coffee service, and the unique cuisine.
What brought you from Ethiopia to Florida?
I came to the U.S. to attend school in Huntsville, Ala., at Drake State Community and Technical College. I earned an associate's degree in computer science then transferred to the University of the District of Columbia where I earned my bachelor's degree in information technology and business management. That was 1996. From there I went to Tallahassee hoping to get my master's degree, but school was too expensive, so I found work in Orlando in the food service industry. I quit working for four years to raise our two youngest children, and when I tried to get back into the workforce, it was 2007, the economy was in trouble and no one would hire me. That's when I decided to open a restaurant.
Why did you choose to start your business in Tampa?
Because it was near my church, St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Tampa Bay in Riverview. Plus, there was no Ethiopian restaurant in Tampa at the time.
Do you think Tampa was ready for Ethiopian food?
Once we decided on this location and put up the "coming soon" sign, we would meet here to try out recipes and train the staff. Every time people saw our heads through the windows they would come in and ask if we were open yet. We would tell them, "No, but come in. We will feed you." And before we knew it, we had people waiting in line to eat and we weren't even open yet. It was overwhelming. I am so grateful for all the support our restaurant has received over the years.
What do you cook at home?
Spaghetti. Lots of spaghetti. And salads.
How about your two young daughters. What do they like?
Pizza. Chick-fil-A chicken. My youngest daughter, who is 10, is a vegetarian. My older daughter, who is 11, really likes steak tartare as her special occasion dish. During the week we eat mostly vegetarian meals at home and meat mostly on Saturdays.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in Tampa Bay?
Pinky's (on Bay to Bay in South Tampa). We love the pancakes.
What's your favorite meal when eating at home?
I like salad with salmon or shrimp, or just with tomatoes.
Least favorite food?
What is one thing you couldn't cook without?
Berbere. It's a spice mixture that you find in almost all Ethiopian cooking.
Are there misconceptions about Ethiopian cooking?
Yes. People think it is very hot, spicy. And it's not. The food is seasoned well — there's more than just salt and pepper. But it's not what we consider spicy. Of course, at our restaurant, you can request your food with no hot spice or just a little.
Know a chef, caterer, cookbook author, journalist or other local food and drink purveyor we should interview for this feature? Email food editor Michelle Stark at [email protected] or Irene Maher at [email protected]