With a single restaurant, she made Ethiopian food an American fascination. So why did fame elude “Mamma Desta”?

In the 1970s, amid changing tastes and a growing population from Ethiopia and Eritrea, chef Desta Bairu’s DC restaurant won national attention. The woman in the kitchen, not so much.

By Mayukh Sen | VOX

Desta Bairu, a native of the Eritrean city of Asmara, had spent her 17 years in America trying to make injera. At first, nothing seemed to work.

The sandy grain called teff grew in abundance in the highlands of Ethiopia, but it was hard to come by in America in the 1970s, and reproducing injera’s spongy, sour sensation seemed impossible without it. Yet after countless experiments involving club soda, beer, and even Coke, Bairu settled on a foolproof formula. She’d brew buckwheat flour and baking powder in water for six days in plastic buckets. Cooks back in Asmara spread the batter flat on an earthenware griddle, gently heating it over a flame of eucalyptus sticks until its surface started to bubble. Bairu opted for a frying pan.

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The result, forged of compromise, wasn’t quite like the injera she knew from home. Its color was creamier, its tang less exclamatory. Yet it was the closest approximation she could offer. Americans unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Ethiopian or Eritrean cooking back in 1978 — which was most Americans, really — may not have known the difference. That year, Bairu became the chef of Mamma Desta’s, the first Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, DC. Bairu’s interpretation of the cuisine, cobbled together from the limited ingredients at her disposal, triggered a national obsession with dishes that are now part of America’s shared palate: kitfo, seasoned raw beef thick with butter and the soft burn of spice; doro wat, that thick stew of chicken crowned with a hard-boiled egg; injera, rolled in sheets that look like plump cigars.

Like the culinary tradition it came from, injera represented a real object of intrigue for American eaters in Bairu’s time. Even its appearance posed a conundrum for the most worldly of journalists. Washington Postwriter Robert L. Asher, who doggedly covered the area’s goings-on, joked that it might double as “doorstops or football padding” after his visit to the restaurant, while the newspaper’s restaurant critic, Phyllis Richman, described it as having “the texture of high-quality rubber gloves and the flavor of yogurt in starch form.” This bread could play many different roles at once, Richman noted: tablecloth, plate, utensil.

Injera sat at the center of a cuisine that deemed forks and knives unnecessary. Human hands were far better tools.

Zenebech Dessu makes injera at her Washington, DC, restaurant Zenebech
Zenebech Dessu makes injera, the spongy bread central to Ethiopian cooking, at her Washington, DC, restaurant Zenebech. Dessu is a semifinalist for a James Beard Award this year, marking a sea change from the years that Ethiopian cooking was seen as a curiosity rather than a cuisine worthy of plaudits.

It’s now easier to recognize this sort of writing as belonging to a bygone era of food criticism, one that presupposed a white reader and gazed at a cuisine of the global South from an uncomfortably awestruck remove, like astronauts encountering an unknown planet. In those days, though, language that emphasized a cuisine’s perceived exoticism captivated diners who fancied themselves to be cosmopolitan, coaxing them to restaurants with foods they’d never tried.

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Through a combination of passionate reception from both the press and diners,Mamma Desta’s was the first nominally Ethiopian restaurant to make a deep impression on America, as much an entry point into the region’s cuisine for the uninitiated as it was a source of inspiration for a generation of Ethiopian- and Eritrean-born restaurateurs. Decades after the restaurant’s closure, Washington, DC, is the de facto capital of Ethiopian cuisine in America, a cradle of restaurants that continue to draw national attention; Zenebech Dessu’s Zenebech was even recently named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award.

The galaxy of Ethiopian restaurants in that city, and the entire nation, owes it all to Mamma Desta’s, which sparked a culinary revolution by inspiring copycat restaurants across America. The restaurant accomplished this feat against a backdrop of a ruinous Ethiopian famine that loomed large in American memory, a military junta, and a civil war that began in 1974.

Bairu’s cooking, unapologetic about its origins, could have deterred more incurious American palates, yet it seemed to awaken sensations eaters didn’t know they had. Richman would later write that tej, the faintly fizzy honey wine Bairu served at her restaurant, “is like drinking flowers.” And Bairu became as much of an attraction as her food. She was a short, forceful woman who wore Hush Puppies shoes as she roamed the restaurant talking with patrons, her strong arms tattooed with Coptic crosses and Ethiopic script. Some of her most devoted diners, natives of Eritrea and Ethiopia, went on to open restaurants themselves, encouraged by her success.

The restaurant, which Bairu didn’t even own, would close by 1983 because of competition from fellow Ethiopian eateries. Bairu would die in relative obscurity in 2002 near Minneapolis.

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“Others brought her into the spotlight,” says Harry Kloman, author of Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.

Circumstance pushed her into the public eye: It was Ghebrai Asmerom — described either as the restaurant’s manager or owner, depending upon the source — who hired her as its cook, and Bairu may never have had the ambitions or means to open a restaurant. Inhabiting that restaurant milieu came naturally to her, though; she courted the press and diners with ease. Had she been left to her own devices, she likely would have kept cooking in the privacy of her own home, Kloman hypothesizes. But the fact that Bairu didn’t own the restaurant that bore her name feels like a cruel metaphor: Her spirit guides the country’s now-robust network of Ethiopian restaurants. With time, she’s become more like a ghost.

MammaMamma Desta’s wasn’t America’s first Ethiopian restaurant. That distinction belonged to the bluntly named Ethiopian Restaurant, owned by one Beyene Guililat in Long Beach, California. Then an aspiring pilot, Guililat opened the restaurant in a two-story brick building in 1966, during a time when Ethiopia felt so distant in the American imagination that a short blurb about the restaurant in the local newspaperreferred to it as “the land of the Queen of Sheba,” as if the country were an imagined place. The restaurant didn’t last more than a few months, according to Kloman, nor did Guililat’s San Diego follow-up. A Miami restaurant called the Ethiopian Lair opened in 1972 to little fanfare; all that exists as evidence of the restaurant is a scant mention in the Miami News, joking that then-Emperor Haile Selassie might like it.

Little is known about why those early restaurants died so abruptly. But their short lifespans may have to do with the fact that Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants were in such small numbers when Guililat’s restaurant opened, so minuscule that the census didn’t even clarify how many Ethiopians lived in America at the time, accounting only for “Africans.” Prior to that period, most immigrants from the region had come to the US to get an education and eventually returned home. But Ethiopian political instability in the 1970s after the ousting of Selassie, followed by Mengistu Haile Mariam’s ascension to power and the outbreak of a civil war in 1974, created a much larger, and ultimately more permanent, exodus to America. Meanwhile, those who were already studying abroad found little reason to return to a home experiencing such turbulence. The Ethiopian refugee population swelled in the ensuing years, when Mariam’s military junta, ushering in a period known as the Red Terror, resulted in the immigration of an entirely new class of educated and upper-class Ethiopians.

Bairu came to America in 1959, long before that influx, to serve as the chief cook for the Ethiopian ambassador to the United Nations. Prior to her arrival, she’d cooked in Italy and Saudi Arabia, as Asmerom told thePostin 1979. The ambassador would leave for Ethiopia in the 1970s, according to Kloman, but Bairu stayed behind, working as a domestic helper in New York City. After a brief detour back home, she moved to Washington, DC. There she met Asmerom, a former liaison with the Peace Corps in Addis Ababa who’d come to the city for college, working as a cab driver and the weekend manager for a doughnut shop. The two had a tight bond: Aware of Bairu’s prowess as a cook, Asmerom would give her a lamb each Easter, asking her to cook it in the manner he knew back home.

“When she moved to Washington, she cooked in her apartment until the complaints started,” Asmerom, who could not be reached for comment, told the Post. “Then we decided it was the right time for a restaurant.”

Mamma Desta’s didn’t look like anything special from the outside when it first opened, just miles from Howard University, in February 1978. The only indication that the storefront was a restaurant at all was a canary-yellow sign hanging over an opaque window; the building had once housed a Chinese restaurant called the Eastern Star. The decor was sparse, with walls the color of turtle flesh, a gargantuan stainless-steel refrigerator plopped in the dining room like an abandoned asteroid and a suggestion box hanging high above a coat rack.

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In spite of the restaurant’s lack of aesthetic polish, the press took to Mamma Desta’s quite easily. Unlike its predecessors, Mamma Desta’s gained admiration from the city’s critical establishment. After all, it emerged in a time when Ethiopians were settling in the country in greater numbers, with Washington becoming a particular locus of Ethiopian immigrants who patronized the restaurant and kept business flourishing. More crucially, as Kloman writes in his book, the ingredients central to Ethiopian cuisine, whether lentils or lamb, weren’t markedly foreign in the way that, say, groundnuts or cassava of Nigerian cuisine may have seemed to white Americans. For those ignorant to its charms, cooking like Bairu’s may have represented a dazzling way to reorder those recognizable ingredients and enliven them with a radically altered flavor profile.

In April 1978, Baltimore Sunwriters Tom Horton and Helen Winternitz, who’d spent five years in Ethiopia, declared that Mamma Desta’s offered “the best Ethiopian meal this side of Addis Ababa.” One month later, the Post’sAsher took his family to the restaurant, coming to the cuisine from a position of utter illiteracy. He was alarmed by the paucity of options — the early menu listed a mere three items — and the fact that utensils were all but absent. There didn’t seem to be many people working the restaurant, either, considering that Asher’s waiter was also the restaurant’s owner.THOUGH DESTA BAIRU’S COOKING DREW PLAUDITS, A NUMBER OF TRAITS BEYOND HER CONTROL — HER AGE, HER RACE, HER MOTHERLY MIEN — MAY HAVE PUT HER AT A DISADVANTAGE.

Asher would have to make do with those “flying-saucer-sized, floppy pancakes with a kind of foam-rubber texture,” or injera. But he eventually discovered that the bread was an able vehicle for the fried, lean beef of tibs; the yebeg wat, lamb with a spice of “two alarms with a controllable low-burning-fire sensation”; and an unspecified dish with chicken and a hard-boiled egg (likely doro wat), which caused one of his dining companions to ask if there was smoke emerging from his mouth. Asher loved it all, especially because the entire party’s bill amounted to just over $13. Yet Bairu herself remained mostly unseen in Asher’s writing; he didn’t get a chance to meet her. He referred to her simply as Mamma Desta. As for her menu, “She does what she wants,” the restaurant’s owner (unnamed by Asher, but presumably Asmerom) told the reporter.

The restaurant received a similarly positive notice from the newspaper’s critic, Richman, the following month. “Roll up your sleeves,” she wrote. “You eat with your hands.” She noted the presence of Chinese lanterns and a jukebox in that sea of booths and chairs, the few accoutrements of “a room that tempts you not at all to describe it.” Richman was a fan, though. She praised Bairu’s ingenuity, noting the chef’s crafty workaround for making injera and her use of sour cream in place of the soft, homemade cheese called lab.

When reflecting on her career in 2000, Richman would call this first visit the best restaurant meal she’d ever had. But Bairu was a cipher in that review too: “Mamma Desta herself may change her white uniform and head draping for a Western red dress and make the rounds of the tables,” wrote Richman, concluding her piece with a grand proclamation: “Mamma Desta could be the mother of the year.”

The fact that none of these initial stories used Bairu’s full name may seem minor until you consider who did receive that basic courtesy in restaurant coverage at the time. The gifted French-born chef Jean-Louis Palladin reversed Washington’s culinary image in 1979 with his restaurant, Jean-Louis at the Watergate. Outlets today routinely refer to him as the city’s first celebrity chef, who drew elite audiences through applying French technique to American ingredients. Upon the restaurant’s opening, he received a lavish profile in the Post that hailed him as “a hero of the nouvelle cuisine, one of the most honored young chefs in a nation.”

Palladin fits a template that many of us may now recognize as catnip for chef deification—white, male, pedigreed (he went to culinary school and worked in restaurants in his native France), cooking continental cuisine. Yet another major talent in the era who received considerable press and an equally affluent clientele was the Austrian-born Nora Pouillon, whose organic eatery Restaurant Nora opened in 1979 and Richman cautiously termed “a culinary statement of radical chic.”

It’s no wonder that Palladin and Pouillon’s names have come to define that era in the city’s dining while Bairu’s hasn’t: Such declarative statements of genius eluded Bairu in her lifetime. Though Desta Bairu’s cooking drew plaudits, a number of traits beyond her control — her age, her race, her motherly mien — may have put her at a disadvantage. The omission of her name from most coverage has the effect of rendering the woman an afterthought, as if she was more of a hostess than a chef whose work justified sustained critical consideration.

In spite of appraisals from such influential writers like Craig Claiborne of the New York Times(who called Ethiopian food “among the world’s most interesting” in 1970), Bairu’s cuisine was still gunning for the respect of the food establishment. Reviewers of the era instead seemed preoccupied with the perceived newness of the food to the American reader. Only the Sunnoted that Bairu was Eritrean.

Bairu’sBairu’s charisma, however, pulled patrons back to the restaurant repeatedly. She wasn’t immune to patronizing cultural comparisons, like the one she was saddled with in the Chicago Tribune, which described her as “a grandmotherly Queen of Sheba as she greets visitors to her domain.” Her gifts as a cultural envoy for Ethiopian cooking may have come from years of work for the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, Kloman speculates in his book. Restaurant work was thus an ideal marriage of her two greatest skills: cooking and diplomacy. She’d boast about the success of the restaurant, bragging to Postreporter Jacqueline Trescott in 1979 about visitors from far outside the city, like “the Los Angeles bank president and the Oregon university president who came straight from the airport, with their baggage, and ate, then checked into their hotel.” She knew how to market herself.

Bairu left the kitchen every time Elizabeth Hand visited to welcome members of her party with three kisses, a moment Hand and her friends anticipated. “She would always come out, and she would greet us very, very warmly,” Hand, now a fiction writer based in Maine, remembers. “She would chat, just about … how was the food? You know, how is everyone? Did you like this, did you like that?”

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Bairu was a small woman, Hand recalls, who usually wore her white apron chalked with the food she’d been chopping. After a few minutes, she’d slip back into the kitchen. Hand’s memories of her meals at Mamma Desta’s compelled her to describe the restaurant in her 1994 fantasy novel Waking the Moon as “a dinky little restaurant in a dicey part of town that had the best Ethiopian food in the city,” while Bairu herself was “a tiny cheerful woman with frizzy greying hair and a bloodstained chef’s apron.”

Four decades on, Hand remains steadfast in her love for Mamma Desta’s. “It was a book where I was kind of throwing in everything I loved about DC,” Hand says of Waking the Moon. “And Mamma Desta’s was one of those things.”

Hand first visited the restaurant when she moved to DC in 1979. During that time, Washington had a growing spate of restaurants serving food that stretched far beyond the United States and continental Europe. That year saw a wave of new, “particularly exotic” restaurants, in Richman’s words, like Siam Inn, Samurai Sushi-ko, and Tung Bor alongside Mamma Desta’s. Such restaurants as Vietnamese-born restaurateur Germaine Swanson’s pan-Asian eatery, Germaine’s, also opened in 1978. “Nobody had much money, but we really liked to go out and find cool restaurants to eat at,” Hand remembers of her friend group.

“I’m sure a lot of this is nostalgia for lost youth, and also, it was the first time I’d had that food,” she adds. “But also, I think it was the first time a lot of people had ever had Ethiopian food.”

Zenebech Dessu in Washington, DC
Mamma Desta’s, which opened in 1978, whet the Western palate for Ethiopian restaurants for decades, creating a national craze for the unique flavors of the region. (Pictured: Zenebech in Washington, DC.)

Mamma Desta’s wasn’t just a gateway to Ethiopian cooking for the unacquainted. Sileshi Alifom, who opened the Ethiopian restaurant Das in 2011 in Georgetown, recalls that it also became a democratic refuge for Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants. Alifom went to Bairu’s restaurant frequently after moving to America in 1970. “I was just like any other immigrant going to see another immigrant at that place,” he remembers.

Soon enough, Bairu’s influence began radiating far beyond the orbit of Washington, DC. By March 1979, the restaurant rated a mention in a New York Timesstory about the city’s late-night eateries, alongside its most prominent direct competitor, the Blue Nile, which had sprouted that year.

Araya Yibrehu, who had come to New York from Addis Ababa in 1976 to study at Pace University, began eating at Mamma Desta’s with friends in 1978. Each time he visited the restaurant, Bairu would emerge from the kitchen. Everyone’s attention would flow toward her.

“I’ve been in the restaurant industry for a long time, and her personality is the most outstanding personality for a restaurant business,” Yibrehu remembers. “She was there smiling, talking to you, like a mother.”

Those visits would inspire Yibrehu to open New York’s first Ethiopian restaurant, Sheba, in 1979 at the tongue of the Holland Tunnel in Manhattan. Yibrehu made ends meet by driving cabs, but he’d long dreamed of opening his own restaurant. He had trouble securing a space, though; landlords would stare at him quizzically when he told them he wanted to open an Ethiopian restaurant, so foreign was the very concept.

Yibrehu stresses that Bairu’s cooking reflected an unmistakably Eritrean sensibility, a distinction that may have been lost on food journalists of the era. “Her cooking has more somewhat Italian influence,” he says, noting the use of tomato paste that hints at colonial origins, resulting in milder flavors than his own cooking, which is laden with fenugreek, black pepper, garlic, and ginger.ETHIOPIAN POLITICAL INSTABILITY IN THE 1970S CREATED A MUCH LARGER, AND ULTIMATELY MORE PERMANENT, EXODUS TO AMERICA.

The more muted nature of Bairu’s cooking may have made it more palatable, then, to American audiences unaccustomed to flavors from the region. Within a year of its opening, Mamma Desta’s was averaging 2,000 customers per week, while white patrons asked her to cater their weddings. It was Bairu’s hope, she joked that year to the Post, that her restaurant would be soon known as one of the finest in the world, so much that Jimmy Carter would come pay a visit.

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“Washington is pleasant,” she would say. “I wouldn’t be living better if I were at home.”

Though the restaurant’s ramshackle interiors were a crucial part of its early charm, Mamma Desta’s went through a few cosmetic improvements as it matured. By 1979, it had been decorated with “African” paintings and ephemera, according to the Post. Mesob, wooden basket tables with low stools, replaced a few of the booths that were there earlier in a bid for what the Postcalled “total immersion in Ethiopian dining.” The restaurant even hired waitresses.

Over the next decade, though, a crop of competitors including the Blue Nile and Red Sea began to outpace Mamma Desta’s growth. By 1979, there were four Ethiopian restaurants on the same busy Washington thoroughfare alone. The 1980s would turn out to be boom times for Ethiopian restaurants in the country at large. In addition to Yibrehu’s Sheba in New York, Los Angeles saw the critically favored Walia appear in 1979, succeeded by restaurants like Almaz, Addis Ababa, Red Sea, and Ghion; the Bay Area got Blue Nile in Oakland in 1980. Major cities like Boston, Dallas, Detroit, and Seattle followed with Ethiopian restaurants of their own.

Mamma Desta’s suffered as a result of the rival restaurants in Washington, though. Some had more high-end pretensions, like posh interiors and robust waitstaff. “The food was fine,” Hand recalls of one such restaurant. “But it was not as good as Mamma Desta’s.” If Mamma Desta’s looked like this, she thought, it would’ve been packed every night.

TheThe restaurant flamed out just before its fifth anniversary. Bairu and Asmerom parted ways. By the time Bairu left Washington, the restaurant had helped to shift perceptions that the nation’s capital was staid culinary backwater, and Mamma Desta’s had earned a national reputation as “the pioneer of the Ethiopian boom.”

The specifics of Bairu’s story are difficult to pin down after her departure from Washington and arrival in the Midwest in 1983, when she was 70. She lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for a brief period, drawn there because of friends, and sold food from her home to the city’s Ethiopian and Eritrean community, which was still in its infancy then. It was through that business that a young entrepreneur named Tekle Gabriel found Bairu. A chemistry graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Tekle was searching for a partner with whom to open Chicago’s first Ethiopian restaurant, a project his friends persuaded him to take on. Tekle, who could not be reached for this story, convinced Bairu to become the restaurant’s chef. She would write culinary history all over again in a different city.

Chicago’s Ethiopian community was much tinier than DC’s in that period; around 1985, there were roughly 10,000 Ethiopians living in Washington, compared with fewer than 1,000 in Chicago, according to the Los Angeles Times. Mama Desta’s Red Sea — the spelling was subtly different from its Washington ancestor — opened in Chicago in January 1984, during a time when Ethiopian cuisine faced a fundamental struggle to gain the esteem of some diners in the city.

For one, Chicago wasn’t yet enlightened to Ethiopian cooking in the same way Washington, New York, and Los Angeles were. Some patrons tied it to the ongoing famine that began in 1983 and wouldn’t end until 1985. Images of famished Ethiopians crowded the media of the era (so pervasive, in fact, that coverage resulted in the controversial 1984 hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by supergroup Band Aid to raise money for relief efforts). “Some of my customers have told me they feel uneasy to come to Ethiopian restaurants and eat because they think of the people starving in our country,” Gabriel told the Los Angeles Times.

In spite of that, the city’s food media welcomed the restaurant with a mix of warmth and fascination, just as Washington had years before. Giving the restaurant a three-star review in March 1984 in the Tribune, Mark Knoblauch did not mention Bairu’s position as a chef, instead focusing on “the novelty of a new cuisine.”

Considered today, such deletions of Bairu from the restaurant’s narrative seem peculiar, as if foretelling her gradual vanishing from historical record. She would split from the restaurant two years later, when Tekle bought it in full. Bairu left for Atlanta and then Minneapolis, according to Kloman, drifting out of the public eye. A legend Kloman heard suggested that she even tried to go back home to Eritrea, embraced upon arrival like a celebrity with a red-carpet rollout and a greeting from then-President Isaias Afwerki. Yet, as the story goes, she wasn’t able to adjust easily to the rhythms of Eritrean life after so many years abroad. She came back to America and died in the Minneapolis area in 2002, just after her 88th birthday, according to death records.

“In reality, Desta was probably as much a metaphor as a pioneer,” Kloman tells me. She found herself at the nexus of a history bigger than herself. Her legacy is so large that it has swallowed her story.

Kbir Alemayehu, Medan Alemayehu, Sophia Bewel, Sossena Dagne, Bezuayehu Sebeseb, and Elizabeth Moltot share a family meal in Aurora, Colorado, in 2015. The growth of the US Ethiopian and Eritrean population through the 1990s helped fuel hunger for the cuisine — but so did the restaurants, including Desta Bairu’s.

There is frustratingly little record of Bairu in her own words, which may reveal whose stories the food media of her time deemed worth telling and which others it ignored. Few took the care to write down her story in her lifetime. The reluctance of the media to refer to Bairu by her name, but instead in matriarchal terms, feels like a tell. A title like “Mama” or “Mamma” carries affection, but it has a whiff of condescension to it, too, as if reviewers saw her food as a mother’s down-home cooking, not that of a serious chef. (She had no known children, either, making the designation even more curious.) This was cooking meant to fill bellies rather than to exist on the plane of art.

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The Chicago restaurant that bore Bairu’s name continued without her until 2009, when competition forced it to close. Its march toward death felt so protracted that the food website Grub Street lamented that it was “the restaurant equivalent of the little old lady who dies in her apartment but isn’t discovered for seventeen years.”

The assessment bears eerie parallels to the story of Desta Bairu. By then, the woman who’d given the restaurant her name was gone for good.

Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning writer in New York. He teaches food journalism at New York University. His first book, about the immigrant women who’ve shaped food in America, will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in fall 2021.

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