Senedu Zewdie was a preschool teacher in Youngstown, Ohio, when two of her brothers beseeched her to come to the District and cook for the Ethiopian restaurant they were opening in the Shaw neighborhood.
The small woman, whose eyes sparkled as she told the story, had never cooked at a restaurant. But she loves to cook and to meet different people, she said. And her husband plans to retire from his General Motors job next year. So she left behind the area she had called home for more than 20 years and joined brothers Makonne and Mesfen Zewdie and sister Emebet Zewdie to open Sodere five months ago.
Ethiopian cooking is hardly new to the Washington area. It has flourished in pockets here for more than two decades.
Sodere is one of a growing number of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants on upper Ninth Street NW between T and U streets, an area where -- as in other parts of the Shaw neighborhood -- the new Washington Convention Center a dozen blocks south is having a revitalizing effect. On Saturday the restaurants will hold their first community event, Taste of Shaw, a food and arts festival designed to introduce people to this refurbished strip.
In addition to Sodere, named for a resort area of Ethiopia, other restaurants participating in Taste of Shaw include Zula's, Bar Portico, DC9, Queen Mekeda and Etete. Tickets -- $15 in advance and $20 Saturday -- entitle visitors to drop by each restaurant for an appetizer and a drink from 5 to 7 p.m.
Sodere is a good place for an introduction to Ethiopian food.
Many of the more established Ethiopian restaurants serve the traditional way, on small, low tables surrounded by small, low stools. The food is placed on a communal platter that is covered with injera, slightly sour pancakes. To eat, diners tear off a small portion of the injera by hand and with it pick up a small amount of food -- like picking up something with a paper towel.
Sodere, with a sparkling clean interior that is reminiscent of an old-fashioned downtown city cafe, makes the introduction a bit easier. Diners sit in comfortable chairs and eat from regular tables.
Sodere presents the steamy, warm injera on a separate plate. The helpful staff members are eager to explain the food and demonstrate basic eating techniques. For the squeamish, there are forks.
Senedu Zewdie uses no written recipes for the menu she prepares daily. "I don't have to measure or anything," she said, to make the nine vegetarian sauces (Americans probably would refer to them as spreads or dips) resting on the giant injera before us. "Americans seem to like vegetarian best."
Among the offerings were a tomato relish, not unlike salsa; a reddish hot pea flour sauce called yeshira we't; small dumplings made from chickpea flour called yeshimbra alichila; stewed lentils; braised collard greens; sweet cabbage; red split pea sauce and yellow split peas.
Meat dishes are also spooned onto the main injera. Doro wot, one of the most popular Ethiopian dishes, is chicken (a leg or a thigh) that is marinated in lemon juice, then sauteed in butter before being stewed in a red pepper sauce flavored with onion, garlic, ginger and cardamom. A perfectly hard-boiled egg is added to the stew just before serving.
Sodere's version is sublime. The chicken is moist and succulent, and the stew is zesty. On our visit, Zewdie added some homemade cottage cheese, which rounded out the flavor.
Tibs -- bits of tender, lean meat, either lamb or beef -- are sauteed with onion, rosemary and jalapeno peppers. The dishes are pleasingly hot and flavorful. The spicy beef stew (yesiga we't) packs a bit more of a punch. Sodere also serves a lamb version.
It's easy to feast on Ethiopian food for $15 a person. Most items on Sodere's menu cost less than $10. There is a full bar, coffee and soft drinks. Sodere opens at 11 a.m., but the lunch crowd hits around 1:30 or 2 p.m., and the dinner hour doesn't really begin until after 8 p.m.
Zewdie said she likes being in the midst of what is becoming a "Little Ethiopia."
"We don't really compete," she said of the different restaurants. "People like to go to different settings, to meet and talk with different people."
She said there really isn't any competition from Dukem, a downtown Ethiopian mainstay two blocks away, which just happens to be owned by another brother.
"He is my right-hand helper," she said.
A Taste of Shaw sponsored by Shaw Main Streets, 5-7 p.m. Saturday, along upper Ninth Street NW, 202-232-2915, Ext. 109, www.shawmainstreets.com.
Sodere 1930 Ninth St. NW, 202-234-2425. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 a.m. daily. Wheelchair accessible.
If you know of a food-related event or restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis at email@example.com.