CLEVELAND — In the Kamm's Corners neighborhood of Cleveland, Habesha Ethiopian & Eritrean Restaurant serves up staple dishes from both countries, inviting diners to sample the flavors of the nations that were brought to Cleveland by three refugees who call Northeast Ohio home.
The restaurant was started by Jamal Musa, his wife Tigist Gebremichael, and their friend Hirityi Weld-esalasi. Musa came to the United States seeking to further his education after leaving Eritrea as a refugee during a time of conflict between the two countries.
"It's not easy to leave your country and come to a stranger's country, but there [was] a need at that time," he said of the war between the countries in the 1990s.
In America, he met Gebremichael and Weld-esalasi, and together they began cooking the cuisines of their two home countries, preparing and sharing the food at farmer's markets in Northeast Ohio.
"It was our passion to cook and it was our dream to have our own business," Musa said.
Seeing the positive response to their food at the markets, and seeing a need for this cuisine on the west side of Cleveland, the three opened their restaurant in 2020, calling it Habesha Ethiopian & Eritrean Restaurant.
Painted on a wall inside the restaurant is the story of Habesha. The message states, "The meaning of Habesha is a word used to refer to both Ethiopian and Eritrean people. Habesha is neither a race, nor an ethnicity, nor a nation. It is a symbol of peace and unity within our community. We at Habesha Ethiopian and Eritrean Restaurant welcome you to join us in this community through the enjoyment of our food."
"Somebody can be from Eritrea, call him Habesha. Somebody can be from Ethiopia, they call him Habesha," explained Musa, describing the community and unity behind the name and term. According to Musa, many of the cuisines of the two countries overlap as well.
The togetherness and feeling of community are key to the experience at Habesha, where one can come alone to enjoy the food or gather with family and friends. Musa says most of their food is meant to be shared.
For example, one of the most popular menu items is injera, a thin, flat bread made of teff and barley. The round, flat bread is laid on top of a platter with a variety of meats and vegetables served on top while accompanied by a basket of rolled injera. Musa explained the injera is meant to act as an all-purpose tool, in lieu of silverware, to scoop and eat the meats and vegetables on top.
Musa scooped spiced lentils, soft split peas, and tender greens -- along with a fresh salad and a centerpiece of sega tibs -- onto the injera. He then prepared the sega tibs, which are cut up pieces of beef with tomatoes, onions, and awaze sauce. The latter is made with berbere spice, a popular ingredient in Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking.
Musa also prepared sambusas, ground meat encased in delicate pastry shaped into triangles.
"When you have people around you sharing the food, it means a lot," he added.
Over beans roasting in a pot over the stovetop, poured onto a woven mat and ground fresh in the kitchen, Musa described the traditional coffee ceremony, an opportunity for people to chat after a meal and enjoy a few sips of coffee. He also told us about gursha, the tradition of feeding one another out of care.
"It's just a symbol of, you know, getting close to each other or being a family," he said.
Like many businesses, Habesha has had to endure the pandemic, but despite the challenges, Musa says the community has been supportive.
"They enjoy the food," he said of his customers. "They come from far away just to have the food here, and we have a lot of people that [have] they never had this kind of food, so they are excited."
One repeat customer is Sean Rutan, whose work has him covering a territory from Columbus north to Cleveland. Whenever he is in the region, he always stops by Habesha Ethiopian & Eritrean Restaurant.
"They almost treat you like family," he exclaimed. "They know me by name, 'Hey what's going on?' they know what I order. It's just fantastic."
Looking to the future, Musa said there's still more work he hopes to do at his current location before growing beyond it. He and his partners are still hard at work sharing the warm, savory, and sometimes spicy flavors from the Horn of Africa with Northeast Ohio.