“In Ethiopia, there are a lot of proverbs,” Zeleke Belete says, sitting across from me over a plate of lamb tibs (roast) with rosemary and jalapeño that we pinch with tears of crepe-like injera. Around us, yellow walls are decorated with screen prints of African villages. At a low-hanging table by an indoor tree, Zeleke’s wife roasts a half-quart of raw coffee beans, grinds them, and stuffs them in a clay jebana with hot water.
Zeleke holds up a ceramic chienne full of 10-minute coffee, all made from scratch. “And one of those proverbs is, Coffee and love taste best when hot,” he says smiling.
This past winter, Zeleke opened Zoma, Cleveland’s second Ethiopian restaurant, following Empress Taytu on St. Clair Avenue, which has long served meals in the East African tradition. Born and raised in Alamata, a small farming village 110 miles north of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, Belete spent seven years in Cleveland before the opportunity came to open up his own eatery, with his wife’s encouragement, and Taytu’s backing. Belete named the eatery after his mother’s birthplace—Zoma.
“Easy, right? It’s not complicated,” Zeleke says. “Anybody can pronounce it.”
Though he created Zoma primarily as a haven for the estimated 1,500 Ethiopians living in Northeast Ohio, Zeleke considers his vegan-friendly spot an east-side gateway for newcomers to indulge in wholesome beef wat (spicy stew) or bean powder shiro, while becoming infatuated with the Ethiopian “slow” process of cooking.
Although Zeleke stresses the purity of Zoma’s cuisine—from eating by hand out of straw musals, to ensuring every patron use the wash station—the modernization of food makes true authenticity a bit challenging. Yes, he’ll ship chilis and coffee beans from Addis Ababa (some which he’ll distribute for the heck of it), but sourcing hormone-free lamb in Northeast Ohio is a stretch for an organic custom.
And he does have plans: a summer patio, traditional music videos, maybe a second Zoma on the west side, if business goes well. But for now, Zoma is about a sense of home.
“That’s what I want to bring to Zoma. Let people just drink coffee, eat injera,” he says. “I simply want you to forget about the outside world for awhile.”
Zoma Ethiopian Restaurant is located at 2240 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights. For more information, visit Facebook.com/ZomaCleveland.
— Mark Oprea, Photos by Lisa Sands