It’s funny how time changes your mind. A couple of years ago, I was set on living in New York City. I told my love I was going to come and figure it out. TBH, I don’t see it in the cards for me anymore mostly because of the space situation. But, if I ever change my mind, I’d live in Harlem.
Every time I go, it’s like a party with hip-hop and reggaeton blasting through speakers. Vendors sell everything from purses, t-shirts, to fresh fruit. Different cultures emerge from subway stations. And I love seeing how they all coexist and shape the neighborhood.
That’s what I noticed when I went to West Harlem.
Before I even arrived at Tsion Café, Ethiopia’s spice mixture pulled me along on St. Nicholas Avenue. Just off 148th Street, a tent sign announced that it’s the winner of the 2017 Citi Market Challenge. And that has a lot to do with Beejhy Barhany, Tsion Café’s chef and owner.
When I arrived, I was interested in the sautéed chicken with jalapeños cooked in tomatoes, butter, and wine. Think Ethiopian-styled tacos. The chicken and a bed of collard greens sit on top of injera bread. That meal helped the Sugar Hill restaurant win the first-ever market challenge. It’s the same meal the staff served at HarlemEatUp! in the summer. I know because just as I arrived, I watched as the person in front of me grab the last sample.
On the back patio, Beejhy and I talked about the meal and the restaurant. Like Beejhy, it’s Ethiopian with inspiration from Israel where she grew up eating shakshuka (below) and malawach. Best of all, I learned a little about Ethiopian culture, which I knew nothing about.
“Ethiopian cuisine is very much heaven in a way for people who are vegetarian,” said Beejhy. “There are a lot of options.”
To prove it, we shared the vegetarian platter with lentils, split peas, chick peas, collard greens, and beets. But not before she served me the gursha. Tearing off a small piece of injera to scoop up the greens, she hand-fed me my first bite of Ethiopian cuisine ever. It’s considered an honor to feed guests the first bite and while I was apprehensive, I wasn’t going to say no.
“Ethiopian food is eaten with the hands,” she said. “Always eat it with your right hand. It’s considered as the respectful hand.”
I followed her lead tearing off pieces of the spongy and slightly sour bread made of teff. I scooped up bird-sized bites of one mound after another tasting how each had a different flavor. Some were sweet, some were smoky, and some had a spicy kick when it hit the back of my throat. My favorite was the vegetarian collard greens. I’ve never tasted such a flavorful batch without a smoked turkey neck.
Though I came for the food, It was the story behind the restaurant that made me stay. From the exposed brick wall to the colorful paintings hanging on each wall, I was in awe. Like Harlem, it’s a mini oasis of art and culture with a community library to boot. That’s something Beejhy is intentional about because of the history of the restaurant.
It’s believed to have once housed the likes of Malcolm X, Redd Foxx, and Charlie Parker. At that time, it was a jazz club called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.
“To open a space that a lot of great leaders, musicians, and actors used to be in this place, we want to continue that legend,” said Beeejhy. “We do that with music and art exhibitions to continue that beautiful culture of renaissance that used to be here.”