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By Eating Our Words
See how breakfast is made in Sheba Cafe's kitchen in our slideshow.
If there were any justice in this world, more people would be enjoying Ethiopian food for breakfast.
Of course, that would require more than one Houston restaurant to be serving the stuff. That one restaurant is Sheba Cafe, the newest addition to the city's small but vibrant Ethiopian dining scene. When Addisaba closed recently, I took it as a worrying sign that our already tiny cluster of Ethiopian restaurants was shriveling and dying. Luckily, the food at Sheba Cafe — breakfast included — assures the the luscious, richly spiced cuisine a vital place in Houston.
Houston, TX 77081
Region: Outer Loop - SW
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Yedoro wat: $10.99
Vegetable combination: $10.99
Sheba foul: $5.99
Kita fir-fir: $7.99
Enqulal fir-fir: $5.99
6251 Bissonnet, 713-272-7770.
Breakfast at Sheba isn't all that different from the standard American or Tex-Mex breakfasts to which we as a city have become accustomed. Eggs, beans, jalapeños, tomatoes, beef and wheat are all standards; it's just the presentation that's different. In that sense, it's just like lunch and dinner Ethiopian-style: familiar ingredients (e.g., cabbage, lentils, chicken, peas, carrots, lamb) prepared differently from what American palates (and eyes) are accustomed to.
My long-suffering boyfriend found this out firsthand one sleepy Saturday morning when I dragged him out of the house with promises of breakfast. "Where are we going?" he asked. I quickly turned up Car Talk on the radio and began loudly talking about Click and Clack in an attempt at distraction; subterfuge is sometimes the only way to get him to less mainstream restaurants. It worked. As we made our way into Gulfton, he suddenly snapped to and reiterated his question: "No, seriously, Katharine. Where are we going?"
I pulled into the strip mall off Bissonnet that houses Sheba Cafe. He looked at the Hoagies and More shop next door that was advertising a confusing half-Vietnamese, half-Salvadoran menu on its windows. "Are we eating Vietnamese hoagies for breakfast?" he demanded.
"Nope!" I chimed back. "Better! Ethiopian food!" His face fell. The light in his eyes that was no doubt fueled by visions of pancakes and orange juice had died. I suddenly felt like the most terrible person in the world.
Ethiopian food is still considered "exotic" in Houston. And, by some — like my boyfriend — the various stews and raw dishes are also considered unappetizing. The act of eating sans utensils, with one's hands and pieces of bread, also seems to be a turnoff for some people. (What? You're too good to wash your hands or something?) But I was determined to change his mind with this meal. I was determined to make him happy with this food._____________________
Half an hour later, our table groaned under the weight of assorted breakfast dishes: a hot bowl of oatmeal-like kinche; a giant platter of kita fir-fir, vivid green jalapeños peeking out from the layers of bread and beef; a brightly festooned bowl of foul filled with a paste of fava beans and condiments; and an equally colorful plate of eggs and tomatoes, enqulal fir-fir. A basket of injera bread and another of fluffy French bread — meant for the foul — sat off to the side.
Two cups of fiery Ethiopian coffee — its strength further enhanced with some sugar — sat waiting, steam rising from the black liquid. That morning, Sheba had the front doors flung open and a slight breeze ruffled the white curtains around the windows as sunshine streamed into the small space, touching on the six tables with their soft, fringed tablecloths. I was blissfully happy.
Across the table, my boyfriend looked less convinced. I handed the bowl of kinche to him first. Cracked wheat cooked in milk and then mixed with slightly sweet clarified butter, kinche is Ethiopia's equivalent of oatmeal. Unlike oatmeal, it has a delightfully springy and occasionally crunchy texture as well as an unforgettable taste that's both nutty and faintly floral at once. I'm known to say this about many dishes, but kinche truly is one of those things I could eat every day.
At a table cattycorner from us, I noticed that the two Ethiopian twentysomethings who were eating breakfast were also enjoying bowls of kinche with mugs of tea. The tea in and of itself deserves attention: Water steeped with warm cloves and cinnamon is served alongside a simple Lipton tea bag. You'll never look at Lipton (or Luzianne) the same way again with a cup of spiced water in front of you. Oh, the possibilities for this winter...
Turning my attention back to the table, I saw that my boyfriend had begun making a makeshift breakfast taco with the injera bread and ingredients scooped from various dishes: beans from the foul, jalapeños from the kita fir-fir, eggs from the enqulal fir-fir. "What are you doing?" I smiled at him.
"I'm Mexican," he laughed. "I'm making a taco."
He was also making my point with his Tex-Mex-Ethiopian construction: Aside from the tart injera bread, made with teff flour and having the consistency of flattened sourdough bread, there was nothing on the table that wasn't recognizable even to the most mainstream of diners. The foul (pronounced "fool"), in particular, is a widely recognized breakfast dish that's popular from Egypt to Eritrea and all throughout the Middle East.