Dining Review: Flavors of Goorsha’s ‘modern Ethiopian cuisine’ are true to tradition

Goorsha's kitfo presentation calls to mind tacos with injera cut into taco size rounds, folded around kitfo and spinach, and topped with crumbles of Ethiopian fresh cheese. They're even folded taco style, and served two to an order on a taco tray. Juli Leonard

Injera, the Ethiopian sourdough flatbread made from teff flour, is often likened to a crepe. To me, injera’s thickness and texture — soft, pliable and spongy, ideal for soaking up juices — are more like a pancake.

Kitfo, a dish of minced raw beef, butter and spices, is Ethiopia’s amped-up answer to steak tartare.

The turmeric and ginger notes in the yellow split pea stew kik alecha remind me of Indian chana dal.

Wot (sometimes spelled wat), fiery with berbere and other spices, has a complex flavor that’s a little bit curry and a little bit Texas chili.

Whenever I write about Ethiopian cuisine, I can’t resist relating dishes to more familiar foods. The comparisons aren’t precisely accurate, of course, but I find they’re a helpful way to describe a cuisine that’s relatively little known in these parts. (By my count, only six Ethiopian restaurants have opened in the Triangle in the 23 years I’ve been writing about the local food scene).

Until now, though, I’ve never compared an Ethiopian dish to a taco. That’s just what Goorsha’s kitfo presentation calls to mind: injera cut into taco size rounds, folded around kitfo and spinach (the “lettuce”), and topped with crumbles of Ethiopian fresh cheese (“queso fresco”). They’re even folded taco style, and served two to an order on a taco tray.

The kitfo presentation is a fetching example of Goorsha’s self-described “modern Ethiopian cuisine,” but it’s by no means the only one. Sambusas, savory pastries with a filling of lentils, onions, garlic and jalapeños wrapped in shatter-crisp phyllo, come with a pungent green sauce served in a sleek ceramic spoon of the sort used for tasting menus. Entrees are served on elegant rectangular platters.

There’s even a selection of Ethiopian-inspired cocktails. Sinig Ginger, for one, a refreshing quencher of muddled ginger and fresh jalapeño, mitmita (Ethiopian chile powder), silver tequila and pineapple juice with just enough kick to hold up to the fragrant spices of the food.

And what a colorful rainbow of spices it is, for the eye as well as the palate. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the pale mint green of azifa (lentils spiked with jalapeño and horseradish, tossed in olive oil and served cold). At the other, there’s the glistening garnet of a beetroot salad spangled with cilantro. In between, there’s the burnished copper of metin shiro (ground chickpea stew subtly seasoned with berbere, garlic and onion), the jewel tone red, green and purple of sinig karya (a whole fresh jalapeño stuffed with finely chopped tomatoes and red onions), and the deep bronze of zilzil key wot (beef simmered in a classic berbere-fused bomb of a gravy).

These are just a few of the options on a menu that includes 17 entree options (beef, chicken, vegan and combo), each served with your choice of two sides. If you’re familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, you’ll find that (notwithstanding the “modern” presentations) the flavors are true to tradition.

If you’re a novice, rest assured that the menu descriptions are accurate. And if you still have questions, chances are one of the owners will be on hand to answer them. Fasil Tesfaye, who emigrated to America as a 17-year-old, manages the front of the house in the evenings, and sometimes helps his sister, Saba, with the cooking. In the daytime, you’ll usually find Tesfaye’s partner, Zewditu Zewdie, running the front of the house.

The partners opened Goorsha last summer in the old Rainbow Chinese building across from Brightleaf Square, giving it a fresh new look with a mix of Ethiopian folk art and scenic photographs on colorful walls, a cozy bar just inside the entrance, and an umbrella-shaded patio.

One of the owners or staff will be happy to instruct you in the traditional way of eating, but here’s the cheat sheet: Tear off pieces of injera (with your right hand only, if you’re being proper) and use it to pick up morsels of food, then pop the whole shebang in your mouth. Repeat.

Injera refills are cheerfully brought as needed, though I’ve always found the amount that comes with the initial order to be more than ample. They’ll also provide a fork on request, but the traditional way is much more fun. Don’t be shy, just dig in and enjoy. If it helps, know that I consider my efforts a success if I manage to get through a meal without getting food on my shirt.

Goorsha

910 W. Main St., Durham
919-588-4660
goorshadurham.com

Cuisine: Ethiopian
Rating: ♦♦♦½
Prices: $$
Atmosphere: casual and colorful
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly, knowledgeable, and (with occasional minor lapses) attentive
Recommended: kitfo, sambusas, metin shiro, zilzil key wot, doro (chicken) wot, awaze tibs.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Reservations: accepted
Other: full bar; accommodates children; /excellent vegetarian selection; patio; limited parking next to the restaurant; additional parking in the Brightleaf Square lot.

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