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This story originally appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper, Volume 14, Number 17. April 28 - May 5, 2004

Hands-on Dining
Pittsburgh Gets Its First Ethiopian Restaurant

By Harry Kloman

AS A LAW STUDENT at Pitt in the mid-1990s, Jamie Wallace did what a lot of other ambitious, educated, well-traveled people his age usually do: He complained about how lame Pittsburgh was, and he imagined himself getting out.

But an alternative scenario had him staying in Pittsburgh and finding a way "to add to the culture and do something that I really enjoy." After a gig at a local law firm, then some time as in-house counsel to Alcoa, he doffed his suit, found two business partners, and created the city's first Ethiopian restaurant.

Abay (sounds like "uh-by"), located on South Highland Avenue at Penn Circle, finally brings to Pittsburgh a cuisine found in every other livable American city. Now Wallace and his partners - Kokit Adgeh and her niece, Sefanit Yilma - will try to make a go of a unique, flavorful and, you might say, very interactive cuisine.

They're nervous, of course, not knowing who will take to this food, which Yilma and Adgeh - both of whom are Ethiopian - say best compares to Indian (but even so, only very slightly). Wallace says their success will count on attracting "the type of person who's willing to try different cuisines."

Some of their restaurant's echt-décor comes from Ethiopia, where Wallace traveled in December to shop and learn. The visit kept him grounded during the long, frustrating remodeling process, and now he reflects, "There's nothing like meeting people with real issues to remind you that yours are trivial by comparison."

Wallace conceived the interior design himself, eschewing professionals. Cobalt blue walls, the color of the Blue Nile - "Abay" is the Amharic name for the storied river - greet visitors in the foyer, with earth tones prevalent inside. Backless, hand-made stools surround a few mesobs - traditional, basket-like tables - at the front of the restaurant, with an abundance of regular tables and chairs available as well. Ethiopian art and artifacts decorate the walls.

Adgeh, an accountant when she lived in Addis Ababa, moved to Washington, D.C., six years ago, four years after her husband won political asylum in the U.S. She'll cook the food at Abay, with help from two people she's trained. Yilma arrived in Pittsburgh 11 years ago to attend Carlow College. She now has a day job as an accountant and is working toward a master's degree in public management. She'll keep the company's books.

The menu at Abay - which came about after a little wrangling among the partners, each of whom had favorite dishes - is largely traditional Ethiopian fare, a mix of meat, vegetable and vegan dishes, with combination platters that allow first-timers (or experienced equivocators) to have some variety.

The raw material of Ethiopian cuisine is stuff you already eat: chicken, beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, peas, lentils, peppers, string beans, chick peas, cabbage and collard greens. Any dish called a wat gets its kick from berbere or awaze, finely ground powders of red pepper mixed with complementary spices. (Think of them as Ethiopian curries.) An alicha dish is mild, seasoned with turmeric, ginger and their tamer kin. Some Ethiopian dishes use vegetable oil as a sauté. But meat dishes often use niter kibbee, a clarified butter, similar to the Indian ghee, that bubbles and simmers with spices during the clarification process to give it a rich aroma and flavor.

Finally, there's injera, the staple bread of Ethiopia, made with a grain called teff. But injera - spongy, unleavened, and prepared from a fermented batter for a sourdough taste - is more than just bread: It's also the table setting and the cutlery.

Ethiopian food comes served on a large round platter covered with injera, with portions of each colorful dish arranged on the injera for all to share. Traditionally, there's no silverware: When the platter arrives, so does a separate basket of injera. Then, you break off pieces of injera, scoop up some food, and eat it. And those who want the full Ethiopian experience can do a round of gursha: the act of placing some food in the mouth of another person at the table - and vice versa. This symbolizes the communal nature of an Ethiopian meal.

Wallace will offer silverware to customers who want it, but he plans to encourage his patrons to eat the Ethiopian way. He's training his servers to "have a dialogue with people coming in" to gauge how much help they'll need in ordering and eating.

For Wallace, who lives in Dormont, Abay is a chance to touch base with his African heritage: His father is African-American, a retired military man who now works at UPMC, implementing the hospital system's diversity plan. Wallace has long been interested in Africa, and a 1995 visit to Kenya sealed his affection. It made him think about the way Americans tend to oversimplify the place and equate African poverty with an African work ethic.

"While I was in Kenya," Wallace recalls, "I had conversations with cab drivers who had an understanding of the world that 90 percent of college graduates do not have. It's difficult for Americans to comprehend that capable, bright, hard-working people exist in these countries and they are poor. There is not necessarily a casual connection between hard work and intelligence and being able to feed one's family due to extremely limited opportunities."

Since then, Wallace has seized upon his own opportunity. He's also grown concerned about issues of diversity in Pittsburgh. While working as a lawyer, he saw some minority candidates turn down jobs and choose to live elsewhere because they didn't believe Pittsburgh would make them feel at home. He hopes Abay can play a role in reversing that impression - and in encouraging others to join him in doing so.