Ethiopian_Diamond_dessertWhat kid wouldn’t want to eat at a restaurant where he is supposed to eat with his hands? (Just don’t the kids that the food they’re picking up with that spongy pancake-like bread is kale, okra and cabbage.)

The healthy but fun-to-eat food is standard fare at Chicago’s two Ethiopian Diamond restaurants, owned by Almaz Yigizaw.

She cooks the way her grandma did back in Gander, Ethiopia.

“She wouldn’t let me cook in the fire. So I just watched her,” said Yigizaw.

But then political turmoil turned her and her older brother into refugees. She spent six months in a Sudanese refugee camp before emigrating to the United States. She was just 15 at the time.

Opening the Restaurant

The siblings settled on Chicago’s north side, in the Rogers Park neighborhood, which is home to the largest concentration of African immigrants in Chicago. She graduated from Senn High School and went on to college. But it was when she attended a entrepreneurial training program and wrote a business plan for opening a restaurant that she found her calling as a chef and businesswoman.

Today, she is proprietor of two Ethiopian Diamond restaurants, at 6120 N. Broadway Ave. and 7537 N. Clark St. The Broadway restaurant, Yigizaw’s first, opened in 1996. She says it’s the largest Ethiopian restaurant in the country.

Ethiopian_Diamond_dinnerKids and Ethiopian Food

The restaurant is crowded on weekend nights, when there’s free entertainment along with the food. During the week, she sometimes hosts school groups that stop by for a short lecture on Ethiopian culture and a taste of the cuisine.

“The kids are not as afraid to try it as they used to be,” said Yigizaw, who exudes calm despite her demanding business that means she hasn’t had a real vacation or even a real day off in years. She hopes to return to Ethiopia for a visit one day soon.

Eating, Ethiopian Style

The food is served Ethiopian style–on one big round plate so everyone can share. It’s the custom in Ethiopia. Eating from one large plate signifies the bonds of loyalty and friendship. The food, however, is not as spicy as it would be in Ethiopia, she says.

“I cook by taste” with spices she imports directly from Ethiopia. Many of the dishes are vegan–the Vegetarian Club meets there once a month–and the traditional injera bread is made of teff flour, one of the healthiest grains in the world. She offers a gluten-free version as well.

Injera bread lines the tray on which the foods are served, so the bread soaks up the juices from the flavorful stews. Once the food is gone, it’s time to eat the placemat.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try It

Portions are generous and, Yigizaw promises, her staff is happy to help Ethiopian Diamond newcomers choose from among the 39 entrée choices and offer guidance on eating the food once it arrives.

I recommend ordering the “Tour of Ethiopia” which offers a sambusa appetizer (thin dough shells stuffed with minced meat or vegetables), Diamond salad, entrée choice (stew-like dishes containing lamb, beef, chicken, or vegetarian options with vegetables, lentils or chick peas that can be made mild or spicy), a sides (try the greens simmered in garlic and onions).

Don’t stop eating until you’ve tried the not-too-sweet injera torte, made from injera bread and walnut cream and drizzled with chocolate.