People always ask me, “What kind of food is still missing from the Durham restaurant scene?” One of my go-to answers is “Ethiopian.” I feel like foodie cities are, in a way, required to have a good mix of global cuisine, and that it should include staples like Thai, Ethiopian, South American, Japanese and Indian.
In the vacant Rainbow Chinese restaurant on W. Main Street, Durham is about to get an authentic Ethiopian experience: We’re very excited to share a sneak peek of Goorsha!
We sat down for a home-cooked meal with owners Fasil TesFaye and Zewditu Zewdie and discussed their plans for the restaurant. Meanwhile, we devoured the delicious lamb stew (pictured in the red bowl below) and tried a sampling of their meat, vegetarian, and vegan platters all with the spongy injera bread used to pinch and pick up the food with your fingers.
BBC: Can you give us a little background about your personal history and how the restaurant concept came about?
FASIL: I have always owned my own business wherever I lived, and when I moved to Durham 12 years ago, I opened a smoothie shop called Big Island Smoothie in Durham and Raleigh. Even though Big Island Smoothie is successful, I’ve always been excited to bring the food of my native Ethiopian culture to Durham. I was fortunate that one of my family members living in Virginia shared this vision–to start a thriving restaurant business in Durham–and we partnered on this new venture. Another friend noticed the former Rainbow Chinese restaurant space across Brightleaf Square was available and contacted us.
The process of naming the restaurant was yet another interesting experience. We thought about what we’d like the restaurant to represent and decided the restaurant should highlight the Ethiopian culture and bring Americans the idea that feeding one another is a representation of community. In Ethiopian culture, friendship, honor, and love are expressed by feeding each other–an act known as a “goorsha.” To perform a goorsha, simply place a bit of food into another’s mouth with your right hand. A goorsha is a sign of acceptance and appreciation, like a hug between friends.
BBC: Ethiopian cuisine has been missing from Downtown Durham, what made you decide to take a chance and open in the old Rainbow restaurant location?
FASIL: Opening an Ethiopian restaurant in downtown Durham has been my dream for the past few years. Downtown Durham is growing and diverse. Duke University and the tech industry contributes to the growth of this area. Identifying a location which is convenient and marketable was my biggest challenge. My understanding about people residing in the RTP area is that they are well-travelled and exposed to many different types of cuisines. I know a few people who have been to Ethiopia and even adopted children from there.
As you mentioned, Ethiopian cuisine has been missing from Downtown Durham, so when the opportunity to introduce the distinct Ethiopian flavor to the community presented itself, I had to grab it. That’s why we decided the old Rainbow location would be the perfect spot for a restaurant. In addition to this, the Ethiopian community in the area is thriving, however, so far, there hasn’t been a good place to have a gathering. Hopefully Goorsha will be able to host many gatherings in the future!
BBC: What will be some of Goorsha’s signature dishes?
FASIL: Some of the signature dishes are vegan dishes that would typically be served during the fasting season in Ethiopia and some are meat dishes. However, we are adding a modern twist to some of these dishes to fit the American sensibility. The ribeye and goden tibs (short ribs) are the signature dish for Goorsha: beef and lamb with the chef’s special chili pepper sauce. From the vegetarian/vegan category, our signature dish is the veggie combo, which includes shiro (chick pea powder stew), spicy red lentil stew, collard greens cooked with spices and fosolia (green beans and carrots flavored with herbs).
You may know that in traditional Ethiopian culture, we share a communal plate and eat with our hands! We decided to go a bit modern and have an option of per person plates in addition to communal platters. Whether you are having an individual plate or communal, we would like our customers to experience different flavors. We are also proud to say Goorsha will be sourcing local products in Durham and that we will work with local farmers and businesses to support our local community. BBC: What about specialty drinks and coffee?
FASIL: Craft beer is on the top of our list. We are trying to bring the Ethiopian flavor but with some local brewers that complement Ethiopian beer flavors. It’s not just about the culture, but promoting the local brewers too.
We will also serve house-made cocktails. This is very exciting because we are experimenting with unique cocktails that we think our customers will love.
The coffee ceremony is big in Ethiopia. We plan to have this ceremony on select days to start, probably during the weekend. We hope to hold it outside on the patio and draw in crowds who want to enjoy it.
BBC: For people who have never tried Ethiopian food before, what would you recommend they try first? What might they be surprised to learn about Ethiopian food?
FASIL: I would suggest the vegetarian combo; this dish is full of flavors. It’s a mix of familiar tastes such as green beans and collard greens, but it also has a twist to it: shiro and spicy lentils, which are my favorite.
The experience of eating with your hands might be different. The spongy texture of injera (bread) will be a surprise since it’s fermented and has a slightly sour taste to it. However, combined with the rich flavors of the sauces, I believe it’s an amazing experience.
BBC: What will the restaurant’s atmosphere be like?
FASIL: It will be a bar, restaurant, and overall gathering place. We would like to create a dining experience where people have the opportunity to gather and mingle. The dining area will showcase the tradition and culture of Ethiopia with unique art. The outside seating/patio area will eventually be shaded and we look forward to sharing the tradition of our coffee ceremony with the Durham community out there on select dates.
Construction is underway and Goorsha hopes to open this spring/summer at 910 W Main St., Durham.