By Lisa Jones
Photography by Jenna Noel
Aster Kassaye of Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant loves to talk about her culture. In her country, she says, people hate to eat alone—a custom called goosha invites diners to feed their companions one bite at a time from a communal platter. Aster tells stories of employees who, out of sheer deference, will go without eating when their employers are too busy for meals. Or of visitors from Ethiopia who invite the surprised Americans next door over for morning coffee.
It’s Ethiopian to be a good host, and Aster is no exception. After a 10-year break from Central Texas, her restaurant is back, and so is her former clientele. Though it’s only been open a month, Austin devotees of Ethiopian food have been eager to share the dishes they’ve missed for so long.
The first Aster’s location opened in a neighborhood near the original Dell campus in the early ’90s. Though it seemed impossibly far north, it became an exotic ethnic food destination for vegetarians and West Coast transplants. But the shop closed in 1995 when Aster’s husband, Bekele, was transferred to Virginia by his employer, Motorola. The Kassaye family didn’t return until 2003, when fans who had reminisced droolfully about injera, gomen and doro wott were finally able to eat them again. Almost immediately, Aster resumed catering and pitched a tent at the Westlake and Austin Farmers’ Markets. Soon after, the Wheatsville Food Co-op and Whole Foods began stocking her prepared dishes.
Raised in a restaurant tradition—both her mother and grandmother owned restaurants in Nazrit—she adamantly refuses to take shortcuts in her authentic home-style preparation.
Like most cuisines where ingredients are limited but variations are endless, Ethiopian food takes time to cook, and spices mark the personal fingerprint of a cook. A restaurant-size quantity of doro wott, the signature Ethiopian chicken stew, requires six hours to prepare; and Aster takes time to mix her special spice blends from 40-pound sacks. Injera bread batter requires four to five days’ fermentation from a homemade starter. Teff, the flour used in injera, has been cultivated in Ethiopia for millennia for its hardy resistance to disease, pests and drought, but the grain is no longer exported and has become very expensive and hard to find. “So I use Arrowhead Mills,” Aster says. “Teff is used in their pancake mix.”
Injera, which does, in fact, resemble a large pancake, has the consistency of a steamed linen napkin. It forms the base of all Ethiopian meals—literally and figuratively. The bread lines a large communal tray and is heaped with stews (wott), sautées (tibs), salads and sauced dishes. Bits of the bread are torn off and used to pick up mouthfuls of food. (The restaurant also offers rice for a less hands-on aid to mopping up.)
Because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church calendar dictates over 200 vegan fast days, vegetarian dishes play a key role in the cuisine. Although the vegetables themselves—onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, lentils, eggplant—are familiar to American palates, seasoning and preparation amplifies their flavors to Technicolor. Gomen (actually an all-purpose term like “greens”) features collards cooked soft, but toothsomely, with onions, garlic and spices; Keyi Miser, a split pea stew, is made with berbere, a spice mixture that layers different flavors in every bite. Timatim fitfit is a sort of North African fattoush—a cold, mixed salad that includes diced bits of injera and a lemon dressing.
“Ethiopians are always surprised by the number of vegetable dishes on my menu,” Aster says.
During fast days, her son Kassaye Kassaye remembers, his family’s most religious members ate nothing but kholo, a snack mix made from roasted barley, wheat, chickpeas, spices and sunflower seeds.
Aster lights up at the mention of sunflower seed. “Its oil plays a large role in Ethiopian cooking,” she says, “but the smaller black seeds of another sunflower variety can be used to make sunflower-seed milk. If only I could find them here!” Ethiopian cuisine includes a surprising number of meat dishes: lamb—often associated with holidays—as well as beef, goat, chicken and freshwater fish. The restaurant’s menu reflects this wealth of entrées, including kitfo, a ground spiced beef dish that has been described as “raw meat served warm,” and that sometimes sounds alarmingly strange to American eaters.
“We can prepare it slightly seared,” Aster smiles, “but last week the only customers who wanted it that way were an older Ethiopian couple.”
Coffee is another important part of Ethiopian food traditions—not surprisingly, as the country holds a credible claim to being its birthplace. A ceremony that begins with roasting green coffee beans invites each participant to inhale the scent of the beans before the coffee is ground. Once brewed in a clay pot called a jebena, the coffee is served with plenty of sugar in three successive cups, each serving progressively thicker.
Under less formal circumstances, contemporary Ethiopians gather many times a day for coffee and conversation. Aster has even considered offering takeout morning coffee in the back lot of the restaurant, along with Ethiopian breakfasts: eggs, a boiled cracked wheat cereal, or sambusas—baked or fried turnovers filled with beans, cheese, peppers, onions or tomatoes.
And there are more plans. Aster is eager to find a space to teach cooking classes, as she likes to teach by “showing, not talking,” and her current kitchen is too small. “Cooking is what you learn from your mother,” she says. “But Kassaye is a good cook.”
“I learned from hanging around you in the kitchen,” her son tells her. “Now I cook when everybody gets together to watch a big game on TV.”
As the restaurant settles into its new location, the Kassayes plan to offer a takeout menu, the awaze sauce and kulet (a base for stews) she’s begun marketing, and Aster’s special spiced teas.
“My friends call my mother ‘The Chemist,’” Kassaye says, “because of her spice mixes and her spiced teas. And they call her ‘The Ambassador’ because most of her customers are Americans, not Ethiopians.”
Clearly, food isn’t the only thing Aster Kassaye has to share. She thinks of her various culinary projects not just as a means of promoting her country’s foods, but the country itself.
“Everybody hears ‘Africa’ and thinks poverty, starvation, disease,” she says, “but Ethiopia is more than that. It’s an ancient culture with beautiful places and things in it.”
Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant
2804 North IH-35 • 512-469-5966
Tuesday–Sunday 11 a.m.–2.30 p.m. and 5–9 p.m.