From the Soap Opera Set to Tel Aviv’s First Ethiopian Chef Restaurant
If all goes as planned, Israel’s first chef-driven Ethiopian restaurant will open its doors to the public later this month in Tel Aviv.
But it wasn’t food that originally brought together the brains behind this project, already 10 years in the making.
“We met on the set of what was supposed to be the first Israeli-Ethiopian soap opera,” recalls 32-year-old Dawid Barhani, a struggling actor at the time. “Nothing ever came of that project, but that’s where we all became friends.”
They hit it off so well, in fact, that Barhani decided to treat his new buddies – stand-up comedian Shmuel Beru and model-turned-lawyer Fanta Prada – to his idea of the ultimate sensory experience: a home-cooked meal at his mom’s. “They were so amazed by her food,” he recounts, “that they decided then and there that the three of us needed to open a restaurant that would take its inspiration from her cooking.”
Barhani was no stranger to the kitchen. Growing up as the oldest of four boys, he assumed the role that would otherwise have been reserved for a girl in their traditional home. “Because there were no daughters in the family, I was the one who helped my mom in the kitchen,” he says. “From the time I was a little boy, while we were still living in Ethiopia, I learned how to host, and I developed a real love for cooking.”
But Barhani realized he needed to polish his resume if their dream was to become a reality. With the encouragement of his new business partners, he enrolled in the Tadmor culinary school in Herzliya, and, after graduating, trained with some of Israel’s top chefs, including Rafi Cohen from the popular Raphael restaurant in Tel Aviv.
Balinjera, the name of the new restaurant, has a double meaning. In Amharic, it is the term used for eating buddies, and in Hebrew, it’s a play on the words “ba li injera” (“I want injera”) – a reference to the classic Ethiopian flatbread made out of teff flour. The restaurant is kosher, says Barhani, although it will not have a certificate from the Rabbinate.
Under the unofficial terms of their business partnership, Barhani and his mom will provide the culinary talents and vision, while Beru and Prada – both well-known names in the Israeli-Ethiopian community – will lend their star power to the new venture.
What makes this Ethiopian restaurant different from the dozen or so others already operating in Israel? First of all, the targeted audience. “Our goal is to reach out to people who wouldn’t ordinarily dine at an Ethiopian restaurant, who might be scared that the food is too different and too spicy for them,” says Barhani. “ We hope to attract them by allowing them to transition into our cuisine slowly,” he says.
So while most Ethiopian restaurants would typically not offer starters and desserts on their menus, says Barhani, theirs does. And while Balinjera’s menu will include the classic injera dishes served with various stews, it will also offer food inspired by other cuisines that incorporate an “Ethiopian twist,” as he describes it.
These include what would otherwise be a classic Middle Eastern dish of fire-roasted eggplant drizzled with tehina. But at Balinjera, the eggplant will be drizzled with black Ethiopian tehina, rather than the light-colored version common in this part of the world. The menu will also incorporate South American influences, featuring the Barhanis’ special Ethiopian salsa and quinoa-based stew.
The restaurant will also strive to accommodate different levels of tolerance to spice, notes Prada. “This is something we learned from Dawid’s mom,” she says. “What really makes her cooking special is her ability to take the same dish and by adding different quantities of spice to it, make it appeal to many different palates.”
The choice of location, in the Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood of Tel Aviv, was very deliberate, says Prada, because it “is known as a neighborhood with lots of ethnic restaurants that attracts people who are looking for that sort of thing, so it’s a natural location for a place like this.”
In the days running up to the official opening, Barhani and his mother are experimenting with different dishes. Each evening, they invite friends and family members to stop by and provide feedback on their latest creations. It all gets incorporated into the next day’s revisions.
As Barhani throws a few spoonfuls of his mother’s secret spice mix into a beef stew simmering on the stovetop (“all I know is that there’s dried garlic and dried onion in it, but I have no idea what else she puts in here”), he is dreaming up another concoction. “I think I have an idea for a dessert that has an Ethiopian twist,” he says. “I’m going to take a classic western dessert, and instead of using regular white flour, I’m going to try making it out of teff flour.”
“Not only healthier, but also gluten-free,” points out Prada with a nod of approval.