But was this Queen Makeda from Yemen or Ethiopia? Or both? One Internet site devoted to femmes fatales (windweaver.com/sheba/shebahome) reports that the area known as Sheba "occupied 483,000 square miles ... in the area of present day Yemen" but adds that "some historians claim that Ethiopia, on the western end of the Red Sea, was also part of Sheba's territory." Ethiopian Christians have historically claimed to be the descendants of Menelik, the love child of Solomon and Sheba.
The cuisine of Yemen and Ethiopia are very much the same, says Mekedem Belete, owner of the one-year-old Addis Ababa Ethiopian Café. It's all characterized by liberal use of fragrant spices -- perhaps many of the same ones that Makeda brought with her to Israel, where, according to the Ethiopian epic Kebra Negast, she announced to Solomon: "We worship the sun, for he cooketh our food."
That may have been the beginning of a culinary trend -- chefs as gods -- that continues to this day. Don't forget that media goddess Martha Stewart started out as a caterer before she became a name brand. And like her ancient predecessor, celebrity chef Martha discovered that the power of spices is their ability to turn ordinary ingredients into something potent and sensuous. A pinch of turmeric adds a golden color and warm, sweet flavor to the traditional Ethiopian dish atiklett watt. This is such a pretty vegetable stew that it's easy to overlook the humble main ingredients: potatoes, carrots and cabbage.
My vegan friend Kelly noticed that while nibbling on the vegetarian "buffet" lunch platter served at Addis Ababa. "I like it, but these are ingredients I could cook at home," she said as she used a torn swatch of spongy injera bread to grab some gingery stewed collard greens. "When I go out for vegetarian food, I like something flashier than this. It's tasty, but it's all kind of mushy, like baby food."
I was dining with Kelly that day partly because my frequent companion Bob, a strictly meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, had sampled Ethiopian cuisine once and refused to try it again. "I don't like my food served in little mounds," he'd told me. "And the meat dishes look like canned dog food."
Such criticisms may be why Kansas City has had an up-and-down relationship with Ethiopian restaurants. Loyal fans supported Martha's in Johnson County and the Blue Nile on 39th Street (just east of the current Addis Ababa), but those places didn't stay in business long. But Belete says he is having success attracting "more white people" than the estimated 4,000 members of Kansas City's Ethiopian community. "Our business is very good," he says. "We get a wide mix of customers."
From the street, a quick glimpse through the window into the restaurant's tiny dining room evokes a feeling of chaos. But that's only the jumbled décor: sponge-painted walls, lots of travel posters and geegaws galore. It's much more charming inside, once you get used to the highly eccentric style of the place, starting with a big-screen TV right in the center of the room.
The altar-sized television was tuned to an ancient episode of Charlie's Angels one Saturday night when I dined there with my friend Carol. We couldn't decide which was more surreal: Jaclyn Smith's disco-era hairdos or the restaurant's weird lighting. Each of the fixtures had a different colored bulb, which illuminated the dark room like a low-rent dance club. Music drowned out the dialogue on the TV, thankfully, but it sounded like Ethiopian disco. I wondered what hallucinogenic spices might be flavoring the iced tea I was drinking -- or was I just having a '70s flashback?
"The only thing missing is the mirrored ball," Carol said.
We had ordered one of the restaurant's two appetizers, a beef sambusa. (There's also a vegetarian version.) A golden, fried pastry folded around ground beef simmered with onion, garlic and rosemary, the sambusa wasn't unappealing; it just tasted like a Nu-Way burger that had been plunged into the deep-fryer until crisp. "It needs some kind of dipping sauce," Carol said. "It's kind of bland."
But blandness is a cool counterpoint to the spicier cuisine at Addis Ababa, where many of the dishes have a definite kick. And thank God for those spices, because there's not much texture in these Ethiopian dishes, which are mostly soft and grainy, like the long-simmered vegetable stews called watts. Beef and lamb variations -- tibbs -- are more substantial, but there's a method to the maddeningly mushy composition. Instead of using forks and spoons, diners at Ethiopian restaurants eat everything with their hands, scooping it up with the crepelike injera bread.
Eating at Addis Ababa is a communal affair. Most dinners arrive on one big, silvery, round tray arrayed with various mounds: a dollop of amber split peas, yekik alcha watt, fragrant with ginger and garlic; a heap of stewed collard greens -- not bitter but deftly seasoned with ginger and a hint of jalapeño; and the terrific, burgundy-colored lentil stew misir watt, which packs a wallop thanks to the berbere (a kick-ass blend of red chili peppers, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander and fenugreek).
Were these the same spices that Sheba carted off to Israel? The earthy, slightly bitter fenugreek -- known as hilbeh in Hebrew -- is such an ancient spice that surviving Egyptian papyri list it as a necessary ingredient for the mummification process. (Hopefully, the berbere mix will add years to my current life rather than to my afterlife.)
There's a novelty to eating without utensils, and the staff at Addis Ababa makes a pleasant ritual out of the process. Before dinner, a vinegary salad arrives in a plastic bowl, accompanied by a fork. Then, in preparation for the tactile part of the meal, servers bring two steamy hand towels to the table. With freshly cleansed fingers, Carol and I could pry off the triangle-shaped slices of griddle-baked injera from a neatly piled stack brought with our platter. The bread, which unfortunately isn't served warm, has a vaguely sourdough taste and an off-putting grayish-purple color.
I hadn't been particularly hungry before sitting down to eat, but the seductive aroma of the food on the platter -- spiked with ginger, garlic, rosemary, cloves and onion -- was so intoxicating that I devoured the stuff. By the time we'd finished half of the tray's contents, Carol and I were exhausted.
There are no desserts listed on the menu, and I didn't even ask about them. Even if there had been something spicy and sweet, I would have turned it down after catching a glimpse of Kate Jackson on the big-screen TV. Back in the Charlie's Angels days, I didn't weigh that much more than Kate did.
And now? Well, let's just say dessert would have been adding insult to injera.