At Tsion Cafe in Harlem, Food From Ethiopia via Israel

  • September 1, 2016

New York Times
On one side lie eggs scrambled with lox over a drape of injera, the sour, springy Ethiopian flatbread as thin and pliant as a crepe and perforated like coral. On the other side, challah French toast, its egg coating spiked with awaze, a meld of earthy-hot berbere and tej, or Ethiopian honey wine, a drink of millenniums past.

At Tsion Cafe in Harlem, breakfast is biography. Beejhy Barhany, the chef, was born in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, into a community of Beta Israel, as Ethiopian Jews are known. In 1980, when she was 4, her family and almost the entire population of her village fled on foot to Sudan, walking only at night to evade detection and resting on the Sabbath.

They hoped one day to reach the Holy Land, invoking Israel’s Law of Return, which welcomes those of Jewish heritage as immigrants. (According to one origin story, Ethiopian Jews are descended from King Solomon and Queen Sheba.) After three years, Ms. Barhany’s family was smuggled through Kenya and Uganda by Land Rover, then flown to France and, finally, Israel.

She spent four years on a kibbutz tilling the land, an experience that taught her to respect ingredients in their natural state. At Tsion, Ethiopian vegetable stews betray little tinkering beyond the near melt of slow-cooked onions, garlic and ginger that gives body to every dish, and an occasional shot of berbere, a concatenation of 17 spices, the strongest among them cumin, cardamom and chile.

Collard greens, typically long-braised in clarified butter, arrive dark and intact, with more than just a memory of crunch. Beets are tender but firm; carrots and potatoes give way without losing coherence. All come in discrete heaps on a round of injera punctured by tiny eyes, or ain, the Amharic term for bubbles trapped in the dough.
Injera is made with teff, an ancient grain indigenous to Ethiopia, hardly the size of a poppy seed. Ms. Barhany adds a sift of wheat flour for suppleness and lets the batter ferment a week or more. (A teff-only version is available at an extra charge, to compensate for both the grain’s higher price and the testiness of the batter.)

The bread is soft and airy, if somewhat less assertive in tang than elsewhere in town. It proves a fine backdrop for less traditional dishes, like those scrambled eggs and smoked salmon (a salute to the city’s Jewish diaspora) or alongside fir-fir, onion and tomatoes simmered with crumbled injera, suggesting a cooked-down, concentrated panzanella.

With injera, you’re meant to tear off strips, for pinching mouthfuls of food. But malawach, a fried bread from Yemen with flaking layers, is a pleasure unto itself, equally fine in two incarnations: savory, accompanied by a daub of green awaze ignited by jalapeños; and sweet, filigreed in shredded coconut and honey. It’s no redundancy to order both.

Like many young Israelis, after serving in the army, Ms. Barhany went backpacking, climbing Machu Picchu in Peru and eating alfajores (dulce de leche sandwich cookies) in Argentina, which she sells here. Eventually she settled in New York and, like many Jewish immigrants before her, found work in the diamond district.

She and her husband, Padmore John, a native of Dominica, opened Tsion in 2014 in the historic Harlem district of Sugar Hill, where they live. An angel watches over the door, just a head with wings, as in Ethiopian folk art, albeit with saucy cartoon eyes. The dining room is a long sweep, barely populated by tables, ending in a patch of sun-steeped garden.

Some nights live jazz lends the air muscle, as if channeling the 1930s and ’40s, when the basement space was an after-hours club called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. Charlie Parker took a job washing dishes just so he could listen to Art Tatum tear up the piano. Later, Redd Foxx scrubbed pots while Malcolm X waited on tables, serving fried chicken and whiskey in coffee cups.

Sugar Hill is not quite Mount Zion. It is not even properly a hill. Nevertheless, the address partly inspired the restaurant’s name: to be a place on a mountain, Ms. Barhany explained, “where people can come nourish their body and their soul.”

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