Queen Sheba: Savoring Spice a Hands-On Experience

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, February 13, 2009

Steve Boutin is trying to eat lunch at Queen Sheba restaurant.

“I’m exceedingly nervous right now,” he says. “This thumb is ready for action.”

Boutin is craving the red-chili lentils on his plate. But first, he must perfect the Ethiopian food-grab. He puts down his fork and picks up a scrap of spongy pancake called injera. Boutin’s tableside tutor is Sara Taddese. She tells Boutin that his thumb is key. 

“The food goes into your thumb like that ….into the injera…” Sara explains. “Basically this is your utensil, but you can eat it.”

Sara, 18, often helps first-time diners master the skill of scooping up Ethiopia’s saucy stews and vegetables with their hands. It’s never neat, at first. Boutin does his best.

“I’m using my thumb. I’m going to wrap it together.”

Sara’s right there. “You’re doing good so far!”

“So I’m ready to eat?” He gets the food into his mouth. “Much better with the thumb.”

Sara encourages Boutin to keep working on his technique. “You roll it like that, yeah, there you go!”  

She works part time at Queen Sheba. The restaurant is owned by her aunt, Zion Taddese from Ethiopia. She lived there until she was 16 years old. She opened Queen Sheba first on Howe Avenue. But two years ago Queen Sheba came to Broadway, and it has thrived.

  Zion once did all the cooking but leaves it now to Ethiopian cooks. She’s a people person and likes to be around customers in the dining room.

“That’s what most customers say,” she says. “We feel good after eating this food. It’s nice to hear that kind of comment from my customers. So everybody eats like a family style, so it’s a whole different experience.

Frankincense smoke drifts into aromas from the kitchen’s spicy stews. A tickle from hot chili. An aromatic hug from fenugreek. Cloves in coffee, coffee, which by the way, was discovered in Ethiopia.  

“Food is part of our culture,” Zion says. “When we cook it, we cook it with love, with caring, with passion. Every dish has its own story.  To know how to cook it, it takes a while. For every dish we have different kinds of spices. You have to know what goes in what.”     

Berbere [behr-BEHR-ree] is Ethiopia’s fiercest spice blend. But it’s not the only one. Ethiopian butter is ubiquitous on the Queen Sheba menu, and it’s not like any butter you know. Zion takes me into the kitchen where she unwraps two blocks of butter, drops them into a pot and clicks on the gas.

“In Ethiopia, everybody has to know how to make butter, especially if you are a girl,” Zion says, laughing. “Our mothers teach us when we were young. So, we kind of see our parents, you know, like our mothers, cook all the time. It’s just an automatic thing.”

Forget that heat is the enemy of butter. Zion is going to boil this butter! “The longer you cook it, the more flavor the butter gets.” The flavor comes from a potpourri of ground up spices inside a thick plastic bag. “It has like 10 different spices from Ethiopia.” Zion inhales the aroma. “ I don’t know if you can smell it….”

We stand at the stove watching the butter for half an hour. It’s foamy. It’s clear. It looks ruined and brown. Finally, it’s yellow and thick. This spiced butter is used only with meat – beef, chicken, lamb. There’s no pork here. Vegetable dishes are strictly vegan. For the butter’s final touch, Zion crushes fenugreek leaves. They’re mainly for the smell.

“That’s what everybody says when they walk by the restaurant … oohhh, what is that smells really good?    

Back in the dining room, an Ethiopian clientele arrives for lunch. There’s beef in pepper sauce, lamb, the spicy chicken stew Doro Wot, and nutritious collards. They’re spooned in separate mounds around a big injera pancake lining a tray -- like an edible plate. After the food’s eaten, some lucky diner will get sop up the juicy injera, and eat that, too. Steve Boutin has had time to practice his Ethiopian food-handling technique.

“I’d say anthropologically this is very redeeming,” Boutin says. “We get to get back to our roots. We can eat with our hands, we can have a smile on our face and we can have greasy fingers.”

And one last note: Napkins are in full supply at Queen Sheba. And if all else fails, you can use a fork.

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