I first learned to enjoy the spicy African dishes from a Washington, D.C., neighbor who'd discovered how to make the famous injera bread while living in Addis Ababa. My knowledge and appreciation expanded in the '80s when Ethiopian restaurants proliferated in Washington, much as Thai ones have done here in the last decade.
Now Richmond has its own, a very good one. And a bargain to boot: Entrees range from $10 to $14.50.
Nile is located at the edge of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in a stand-alone brick building. The dining room, which is separated from a bar by an archway, has brick walls, ceiling fans, open rafters and glass-covered, candle-lit tables.
The original Nile opened in mid-2004. But new owners, Yeshareg Demisse and Natan Teklemariam mother and son, respectively raised the bar when they took over in January.
While there are individual dishes of lamb, beef, poultry and seafood, many customers, from regulars to novices, opt for combinations, which allow for a mix of five entrees.
Several entrees are prepared in wat, a thick saucy meat or bean stew made with chopped shallots or onions.
Many dishes are seasoned with dozens of spices, including lesser-known ones from Africa and the Middle East such as berbere, fenugreek and rue.
If I have a complaint about Ethiopian fare it is that much of it looks alike, the result of being ground in a blender.
Because multiple orders are served in mounds on a single large plate in the middle of the table from which diners use the injera (bread) to pick up individual bites, individual flavors tend to become indistinct.
Thus, such disparate entrees as mashed lentils with lime juice and lemon and finely chopped tuna with onion, garlic and jalapeno tend to look similar.
Whatever shortcomings result from this custom are happily overcome by the expertise of Demisse's cooking.
Appetizers ($5-$6.50) are a treat too, including bite-sized rolls of soft, homemade Ethiopian cheese seasoned with cayenne, and a fiery dish of finely chopped tomatoes spiced up with jalape¤o peppers and onions in a lemon-based seasoning.
Dessert is an easy choice: Order the sweet and airy baklava.
Demisse brought her son to America in 1983 when she was sent to the United Nations' headquarters in New York to work for its Asia bureau. (She had been working for the UN's Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia.) She's a disciple of macrobiotics, the study of how diet can prolong life, who catered for friends and colleagues until she took early retirement from the UN and turned to cooking full time.
After opening an Ethiopian restaurant in Madison, Wis., three years ago, Demisse moved here in the winter. Joined by Teklemariam, who'd been in the fashion industry in New York, she took over Nile, which had been started by their relatives who returned to Washington to manage other family businesses. Now Demisse reigns in the kitchen while her son runs the front.
Originally, Demisse intended to use her training at the Kushi Institute in Massachusetts to run a health-food restaurant until she discovered a void in her native cuisine in mid-size cities such as Madison and Richmond.
She's incorporated her passion for nutrition-oriented food into the menu at Nile, which, while it offers plenty of meat and fish dishes, is a haven for non-meat eaters, offering 10 vegetarian entrees. Because of frequent droughts, combined with fasting, many Ethiopians abstain from dairy, meat and fish and eat a vegan diet.
The food at Nile is gluten-free, with the injera made daily from wheat-free grain grown in Idaho. The resulting bread is light and easy to digest, which is important at Nile because injera replaces utensils and thus is consumed in quantity.
It must be granted that Ethiopian food is not for everyone. One friend complained that the bread "tastes like a wet rug," and finicky folks probably won't like eating with their fingers (forks can be requested).
But for the rest of us, Richmond's Nile, like the river of that name that irrigates much of North Africa, is a blessing. S
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant ($$ NS)
309 N. Laurel St. (between Broad and Grace)
Lunch: 12-3p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, till 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday