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A&E >  Food

Ethiopian royalty

Almaz Ainuu’s Queen of Sheba restaurant has astounded with dazzling flavors since opening five years ago

Almaz Ainuu isn’t one for measurements.

She’s more of an eyeballer and taste-tester, doing things in the kitchen by look and flavor. It’s how she learned to cook in Ethiopia. It’s how she continues to cook today, 23 years after coming to America, a decade after coming to Spokane and five years after opening her Ethiopian restaurant.

Queen of Sheba celebrates its anniversary this month.

To mark the occasion, Ainuu is sharing recipes for a few of her oft-requested dishes: Tibs, a beef stir-fry with onions and green peppers, and Yemeshir Kik We’t, a vegetarian dish of red lentils in berbere sauce.

Both are traditionally served with injera, a spongy and sort of sour flatbread that’s made from teff and resembles a pancake. It doubles as nourishment and a utensil, used in place of silverware, to pinch small amounts of food, then tuck them into your mouth.

It took awhile for customers to get used to eating with their hands. Some still ask for forks, spoons and knives, and Ainuu is happy to oblige.

She has eight tables inside her cozy restaurant, located in a window-encased corner space on the first floor of the old Flour Mill. A few more tables sit in the hallway lined with shops.

But, in the back, there’s a traditional seating area where the mesob takes center stage. A large plate of food – usually injera topped with different entrées – sits atop the circular, woven-straw stand, which loosely resembles an hourglass. Diners sit around it and share a meal.

In the early days, “They used to complain it was too spicy,” Ainuu said. “We have to listen to our customers.”

She toned down her berbere sauce, made from a blend of moderately hot red peppers and other spices.

Her menu is written in English and Amharic. It comes with a pronunciation guide.

“I’m sharing more than just food,” Ainuu said. “It’s the relationships. It’s the culture. It’s hard work. But it keeps me going. It’s the people. I love people. I’m a people person. I enjoy my customers.”

Many of her customers are vegetarian. Some are on gluten-free diets. Teff, the whole grain used to make injera, is naturally gluten free.

“Our food, it’s very time-consuming,” Ainuu said. “Everything is from scratch. It takes a lot of prepping.”

But, she said, “Here, we don’t measure everything. You do it over and over again.”

It becomes second nature.

Ainuu, a former preschool teacher, moved to Spokane from Southern California in 2004. Originally from Ethiopia, she met her husband when both were serving as Christian missionaries in Kenya through Youth With A Mission. They volunteered together for about six months, then corresponded for a couple of years before marrying in Nairobi in 1992 and moving to California, where he had grown up.

They brought their children – a son and daughter, now 20 and 17 – to Africa in 2007.

“When I came back I felt God was telling me, ‘Open a restaurant,’ ” Ainuu said.

She took a business management class through a local nonprofit and credits it for a big part of her success. Through the program, she researched and crafted a business plan and budget. She opened Queen of Sheba in May 2010. Today, she employs three cooks – two full-time, one part-time – as well as a dishwasher and two servers, one of which is her daughter.

Ainuu roasts Queen of Sheba’s own “very dark” coffee in house with cardamom and cloves. She also makes clarified butter in house for use in dishes like tibs, one of the restaurant’s top sellers.

Ainuu likens the tender beef stir-fry to “Ethiopian fajitas,” and she makes it more fragrant with fresh rosemary. Ainuu loves rosemary. She also uses red onions in the dish for their color, but yellow or white onions could be used.

Yemeshir kik we’t, or red lentils in berbere sauce, is a top-selling vegetarian dish at Queen of Sheba. Ainuu uses finely chopped onions to thicken the berbere sauce. In fact, “We use the onion to thicken everything,” she said.

Her tips for making this dish include keeping water handy to add as needed throughout the cooking process. She also makes sure to leave the lid off of the pot to keep an eye on the mixture.

“You just cook it real slow,” she said.

Note: For recipes of berbere and injera, see the related cookbook review.

Tibs (beef with onions and peppers)

From Almaz Ainuu of Queen of Sheba in Spokane

8 ounces beef, cut into thin, 1-inch strips

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/2 to 1 teaspoon chili powder or mitmita (mixture of Ethiopian spices), as desired

1 tablespoon canola oil

1/2 green bell pepper, thinly sliced

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 leaf fresh basil

1 stick rosemary, leaves removed

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon clarified butter

Toss the beef with cardamom and chili powder and allow to sit overnight or at least 4 hours.

Heat oil in sauté pan over medium-high heat. Brown beef, then add peppers, onions, seasoning, herbs and garlic. Stir to combine. Let sizzle until thoroughly cooked, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add clarified butter. Stir mixture as butter melts. Serve with injera or pita bread, lavash bread or tortillas.

Yemeshir Kik We’t (red lentils in berbere sauce)

From Almaz Ainuu of Queen of Sheba in Spokane

1/2 cup canola oil

3 cups yellow onion, puréed

12 cups water, divided

1/2 to 1 cup berbere paste, (See related story), or chili powder, as desired

1/2 cup tomato purée

4 cups red lentils

5 cloves garlic

1-inch piece ginger

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon allspice

Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oil in large soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding water in ½ cup increments if needed. Add berbere and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring to combine and continuing to add water as the mixture thickens. Add tomato purée and cook 15 minutes more.

Meantime, double rinse lentils.

Add remaining water to soup pot, bring to boil, then add lentils and cook for about 20 minutes.

Process garlic, ginger and olive oil in food processor until paste forms.

Add paste to lentil mixture and stir to combine. Add allspice and seasoning.

Let sit about 5 minutes before serving. Serve with injera (see related cookbook review) or pita bread, lavash bread or tortillas.

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