This weekend I visited brand new Ethiopian restaurant, Nile in Coralville, Iowa. Plus, for the uninitiated, I share how to eat Ethiopian food.
When David and I were moving back to Iowa after over a decade in Los Angeles, I had more than a few concerns. One of them was not having access to the variety of restaurants to which I’d grown accustomed. Ethiopian is one of my favorite cuisines, and Los Angeles has no shortage of options. (Although, if you have access to Rahel Vegan Cuisine, I can’t imagine why you’d go anywhere else.) We were relieved to discover that there actually was an Ethiopian restaurant in Eastern Iowa… Then it closed within months of our arrival. And it wasn’t that good anyway.
With time, I learned to cook Ethiopian food for myself, making my own infused oil, and buying injera from a woman who had moved to the States from Ethiopia. Armed with berbere purchased en masse whenever I ventured to an Ethiopian grocery store in other cities, making Ethiopian food at home can be delicious and even exciting. (As my friend, Kittee, always recommends, make sure to get real Ethiopian berbere and not a mix somewhere like Penzey’s, which uses cayenne pepper. Berbere should be flavorful and spicy, but not burn-your-mouth-off hot.)
David and I love to have friends over for Ethiopian food. For some of our friends, it was their first time trying it. For others, it’s something they always seek out whenever they’re in big cities, and so getting to indulge closer to home was a coup. We have a couple of large platters especially for when we have friends over for a dinner of Ethiopian food.
So you can imagine how excited I was on Saturday when a friend posted on Facebook about a new Ethiopian restaurant that was having its grand opening in Coralville, Iowa.
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant is in a strip mall behind a popular Chinese buffet. The space is bright and open, and there were a few people dining.
The waiter came over with menus, which include a vegetarian section. Ethiopian wots (stews) can be made with either spice-infused butter or oil. Most restaurants seem to use oil, but for vegans, it’s always best to ask.
The waiter wasn’t sure which they used, and so he went in the back to ask the chef. You can only imagine how David and I held our breath until he returned. It would have been so sad to finally have access to a good Ethiopian restaurant, only to have to leave because the wots were cooked in dairy-based butter. When the waiter returned, he told us that all of the vegetarian options are cooked in oil. Score!
We settled on a vegetarian sampler, which came with our choice of 5 wots. There are 6 vegetarian wots listed on the menu, and so it basically meant asking for a platter without one of the options. Sorry, shiro. (Pro tip: If you ask, they will let you have all of the vegetarian items for about a dollar more.)
David also opted for some Ethiopian coffee, which was strong without being overly acidic.
How to Eat Ethiopian Food
On all of the tables were sheets explaining how to eat Ethiopian food. Since Ethiopian food is a rarity in Iowa, this is a nice touch for people who might be confused as to why there’s no silverware on the table. Ethiopian food is eaten on a shared platter – by hand.
The platter is covered in a layer of sponge-y bread called injera. The sour bread is like a combination of sourdough and a pancake. Injera is made with teff flour, which is protein-dense and gluten-free. (However, many restaurants use a mix of flours, and so it’s good to ask if the injera is gluten-free or not if you are sensitive to gluten. Currently, the injera at Nile Ethiopian Restaurant is not gluten-free.)
On the side, there is more injera, which is used for scooping the stews. Since you’ll be eating by hand, it’s important to wash your hands before dining. At some restaurants like Rahel, the server will also come around with a water pitcher and basin to wash everyone’s hands at the table. However, they don’t do that at Nile.
Using your right hand, tear off a piece of injera. It will be a pocket for your food. Scoop up a bite-sized amount of the stew with the injera, and put it in your mouth, being careful not to touch your mouth with your fingers. Then tear off another piece of injera, and continue. For obvious reasons, it’s impolite to lick your fingers while dining.
Here are the stews we sampled. Red lentils in a berbere sauce, cabbage and potatoes, green beans and carrots, collard greens, and a fresh green salad in an Italian-style vinaigrette. My favorite wot of the bunch was the yellow split pea stew – mild and mushy in texture.
If you are a person who is afraid of spicy food, there’s nothing to fear here. Although the food has a lot of flavor, it isn’t hot at all. The green beans and carrots had a bit of sweetness to them, which was an unexpected surprise. All of the food had a layered, warming flavor, and wasn’t oily as can be an issue at some Ethiopian restaurants. This was the perfect amount of food for two hungry adults.
This is an excellent new addition to the Iowa restaurant landscape. If you’re elsewhere in the state, there is also an Ethiopian restaurant in Fairfield. For Florida, Minnesota, and New York Ethiopian lovers, check out these reviews from Nile Ethiopian in Orlando, Bunna in Brooklyn, and Fasika in Minneapolis. To make Ethiopian food at home, I can’t recommend the cookbook, Teff Love, highly enough.
For more vegan options in Iowa, check out my Iowa travel page.
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