Sourdough starters are ubiquitous right now during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Menbere Medhane, the chef and owner of popular Ethiopian restaurant Ahadu in Pinehurst, says she’s tried her hand at a different fermented bread project: injera.
Like everyone worried about having enough pantry staples during Washington’s stay-at-home order, the foods that Medhane stocks up on offers a window into her culinary world. Medhane, who lives with her husband, their two teenagers, and her 82-year-old mom, normally purchases premade versions of injera, which serves as a plate, utensil, and staple of Ethiopian cuisine. But as that became harder to find in markets, she instead bought the grain to make the bread from scratch.
Hurrying to gather enough of the Idaho-grown teff, which she notes works better than the Ethiopian imports, she ended up with seven bags — useful, because the fermentation process for making the bread adapts poorly to Seattle: “sometimes it bubbles, sometimes it doesn’t.” Still, she acknowledges how much better it turns out than the versions of injera she recalls from when she first arrived in Seattle as a teenager in the late ‘80s, when nobody sold teff and immigrants made do (poorly) with self-rising wheat flour.
Medhane struggles with a different supply issue at the restaurant: She spends most of Tuesdays and Wednesdays, her days off, looking for green beans. Her fossolia — green beans and carrots scented with ground coriander — stars in the Ahadu’s popular vegetarian platter. “I can’t get enough, because Costco is limiting to two bags,” she says.
Medhane searched from store to store, sometimes purchasing them at Trader Joe’s. But the beans are much needed, with many customers calling in takeout orders or using delivery apps. It’s the closest thing diners can get to sitting in Ahadu’s dining room as the Ethiopian spices waft up from pots of miser wat (red lentil stew) and pans of kwanta fir fir — stewed and spiced dried beef mixed with strips of injera.
Due to social distancing concerns over the small size of the kitchen, Ahadu’s one employee isn’t at the restaurant, but Mendhane’s husband and their older son — due to graduate from O’dea this year — help fulfill takeout orders. She takes pride in the time they cooked for University of Washington doctors and nurses, cherishing the photo the essential workers sent back of themselves eating.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mendhane noticed that orders come in at twice their normal size, as people stock up for more than just one meal, especially vegetarian dishes. “Lots of people want a whole pan of lentils,” she says. The rush of takeout customers meant changing her schedule — she sells out some of her vegetarian items that she used to make every other day so quickly that she cooks them daily, instead.
This may make up for another complication of Medhane’s business: the restaurant’s weekly beef order shrank from a whole animal twice a week to just half due to the recent drop in business. Ahadu started out in 2005 as a market, but in its second incarnation became a butcher shop in 2012. When the restaurant opened in 2014, Medhane and her husband kept bringing in beef slaughtered that morning from a Central Washington ranch. On Thursdays and Sundays, in normal times, the line stretches from the kitchen, out the door, and onto the sidewalk as customers await their share.
But while she only brings in half an animal at the restaurant, she did no such paring down at home. She giggles as she admits her biggest stay-at-home cooking purchase: “I bought a lamb!”