COLOR WHEEL: A meal at Zeni features many spicy choices. Photograph by Jake Fouts

I would imagine Ethiopia’s manner of dining to be a child’s dream: the food is eaten with the hands, one plate is filled with a variety of different foods and mixing things is encouraged.

As someone who grew up with stains all over my clothing and food typically on my face during or after a meal, I felt right at home visiting Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant on Saratoga Avenue in San Jose. The number of positive reviews and awards the restaurant has received since it opened 10 years ago would suggest that I’m not the only one. A sense of warmth fills Zeni. The restaurant is named after owner Zeni Gebremariam—perhaps because the restaurant represents a culture of community and hospitality. The walls are lined with Ethiopian art, and meals are prepared and served by women of Ethiopian descent.

The main room opens up into another filled with traditional Ethiopian mesobs (tables made from thatched straw) surrounded by stools. On Fridays and Saturdays, an Ethiopian musician plays renditions of the country’s classical music on the keyboard. The full bar at the front has a thatched straw roof. As I sat and waited for my meal one day, sipping spiced Ethiopian tea, I felt right at home.

In 1991, Zeni left her own home in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to live in the United States with her husband. She grew up learning to cook alongside her mother after school, preparing meals for her large family. The recipes she provides on her menu are all traditional, passed down to her and making their way to the Bay Area in a manner loyal to her homeland. Spices, tea and coffee are all imported from Ethiopia, while vegetables and meat products are bought locally. Nothing comes from a can.

Injera forms the foundation of Ethiopian cuisine. The spongy pancake-looking bread literally acts as the base for all meals and also serves in lieu of utensils. A large, circular piece of injera is adorned with different meats, veggies and stews, known as wots, soaking up the different juices and marinating with flavor by the end of the meal. The whole thing looks like a painter’s palette.

A generous and seemingly endless supply of rolled injera also comes on the side and is used to pick up the food in a crablike fashion with your hand.  While many characteristics define the restaurant and culture as markedly Ethiopian, I found I could relate the different tastes, textures and aromas to cuisine and ingredients much closer to home.

For example, a vegetarian dish called ye-timatim fitfit ($9.50) is injera soaked in tomato, onion, jalapeno, lime juice and special spices—reminding me of pico de gallo salsa from Mexico.

The doro-wot chicken ($12.99), which comes as one of the four choices in the meat combination, was covered in a thick, dark sauce reminding me of the traditional mole dish from Oaxaca. Jalapeno and other spices like red chile powder, cumin, turmeric and coriander combine, similar to Indian cuisine, making many dishes spicy and extremely flavorful. 
Finally, there’s the Ethiopian coffee, a rich espresso made with cloves that is similar to a Turkish coffee with a sweet twist.

If you’ve never tried Ethiopian, order the veggie and meat combinations, which include lentils, salad, collard greens, boiled cabbage, split peas, lamb, chicken, ground beef and house-made cheese. Each combination is around $14 and has a little bit of everything.

A personal favorite on the menu was the ye beg tibs ($13.50), a lamb dish with onions, green peppers and tomato sauteed in butter. Order it sizzling, and it’ll come out fajita-style hot and steaming.

The ye doro tibs ($12.99), a chicken dish braised in onions, tomato, green pepper and butter, is also great. So, too, is the kei wot ($11), a spicy, dark-brown beef stew with a kick that lingers.

Zeni also pays tribute to Ethiopia’s status as the birthplace of coffee by offering a coffee ceremony. As long as you notify the restaurant two hours ahead of time, you can experience this traditional ceremony right at your table, or mesob. The ceremony includes coffee grinding, roasting and full preparation, and lasts for almost an hour.

Zeni
1320 Saratoga Ave., San Jose
408.615.8282