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EST. 2011 BY LIZ RUEVEN
Tsion Cafe; Where Ethiopia Meets Israel in Harlem
Tsion Cafe owner, Beejhy Barhany and guest, Danielle Rehfeld

Tsion Cafe; Where Ethiopia Meets Israel in Harlem

When I read about Tsion Cafe, Beejhy Barhany’s cozy spot in Harlem, I wondered if the menu would link her journey from Ethiopia to NYC via Israel.  Like so many immigrants’ stories, this chef’s personal history informs her cooking in plenty of delectable ways. While many dishes are distinctly Ethiopian, others are mash-ups, like Tsion* Eggs, a clever and charming meeting of the Lower East Side’s smoked fish and Ethiopia’s national bread.

ethiopian vegetarian cafe nyc
Photo: Liz Rueven

When Beejhy was four, she and her family, along with most of her small Beta Israel community in Northern Ethiopia, escaped on foot to Sudan. After three years of walking at night so they wouldn’t be detected (and resting on Shabbat), they were smuggled through Kenya and Uganda, flown to France and finally airlifted to Israel.

She spent the second part of her childhood and teen years in Israel on a kibbutz, served in the Israeli army and traveled through parts of South America before coming to NYC. She lives with her two children and her husband in the historic Sugar Hill section of Harlem in NYC.

ethiopian cafe nyc, vegetarian highlights
photo: Liz Rueven

Beejhy’s casual, homey cafe is a perfect spot to explore Ethiopian dishes.

The menu reads like the soft-spoken owner’s personal history with mash-ups reflecting her homeland, Israel and NYC. We found a tempting variety including Smoked Salmon and Avocado Salad, Shakshuka and Tsion Eggs. But we were at Tsion for an adventure to the unknown (for me, at least) so we veered towards Africa as we ordered.

photo: Liz Rueven
photo: Liz Rueven

While utensils are provided, it’s a great opportunity to go forkless. After our gracious host gave us a quick demo, it was easy to swipe pliable strips of injera, grasping bite size mounds of shiro, atakilt, red lentils and gomen.

photo: Liz Rueven
photo: Liz Rueven

Injera** is a naturally fermented, spongy Ethiopian flatbread made from an ancient grain called teff. At Tsion, the injera is mild (only slightly tangy) as it is mixed with a bit of wheat. Natural fermentation takes from 3-6 days depending on the season and the temperature in the cafe’s kitchen. Towards the end of each week, when business accelerates, the chef at Tsion hand forms 80-100 pieces of flatbread a day.

photo: Liz Rueven
photo: Liz Rueven

When the Ethiopian Veggie Combo arrived, we learned to tear the flatbread and work our way around the platter, exploring 5-6 tasty salads and stews.

My dining partner D (a chef) noticed the range of textures and colors in the delicious offerings. We both loved the mild but distinctive seasonings which included chili, turmeric, cardamom and a range of other spices blended into berbere (a spice blend that varies from home to home and region to region. Think curry, in concept).

Red lentils were long simmered and sweet with plenty of braised onions. Shiro, the Ethiopian equal to hummus, was delicious as was the gomen (collard greens). See recipe below.

photo: Liz Rueven
photo: Liz Rueven

Fir-Fir, sauteed onions and tomatoes, was the sole dish with a bit of heat from jalapenos. It was a standout as we savored bites wrapped in injera.

A mound of Ful, fava beans simmered with tomatoes and onions, was topped with feta and raw diced onion. It’s simple preparation led us to reminisce about Israeli dishes that put raw veggies and uncomplicated presentations front and center.

ethiopian cafe, nyc, vegetarian, tsion cafe
photo: Liz Rueven

Sambusa, a crispy triangular stuffed pastry, yielded to a moist interior. Customers have a choice of  lentils or collard greens for fillings. We opted to try both and thought the collards were a standout.

For brunch, Tsion offers two types of quiches, bagels with smoked salmon, challah French toast with “Tsion spice” and blueberry/maple compote. We may need to head back to try the rest of the vegetarian choices, of which there were quite a few.

ethiopian malawach, honey dessert, cafe nyc
photo: Liz Rueven

We finished with Malawach, a fried and layered bread from Yemen that has become a favorite in Israel. Here it was offered as a savory dish with eggs, grated tomatoes and awaze (house made hot sauce) or as a sweet dessert. We opted for malawach with honey, crispy layers of flaky pastry redolent with sweet nectar and topped with roasted shredded coconut.

mead, honey wine, ethiopian cafe, tsion, nyc
photo: Liz Rueven

As we sipped traditional honey wine called Sheba Tej (fermented honey but no grapes), also known as mead, we enjoyed hearing Beejy speak about this ancient drink. The tale is that the queen of Sheba brought mead to King Solomon and plied him with it. He promptly fell in love with her. Whether it was her beauty, intellect or the effect of honey wine, we’ll never know. We liked it a lot, too.

Finally, Tsion offers live music on most Thursday nights and into the weekend. Check the website for details.

 

*Tsion is Hebrew for Zion or Israel. It refers to the people and land itself. It also refers to an idealized community or utopia.

**Injera is naturally gluten-free but is prepared with some wheat here. It can be ordered gluten-free for a small surcharge.

Tsion Cafe is a vegetarian friendly spot offering many options for those who are Kosher Like MeTsion is not a kosher cafe.

 

Tsion Cafe

763 St. Nicholas Avenue (148th Street), NYC

212-234-2070

Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday- Sunday.

Check website for hours and music schedule.

 

 

 

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