Ethiopian Cuisine returns to Mankato

July 17, 2017

Savoy Bar and Grill reopens downtown

By Dan Greenwood Special to The Free Press

Local fans of Ethiopian cuisine no longer have to make the trek to the Twin Cities to get their fix. After a long hiatus, Dermi and Lencho Jarso have brought back the food of their homeland to Mankato at Savoy Bar and Grill on Front Street downtown.

The couple used to run an Ethiopian restaurant called Nile on Madison Avenue. They rented out a small location (the former Hilltop Tavern Hamburger Heaven site) that fostered a loyal group of customers. When they opened Savoy they switched to burgers and Mediterranean fare to accommodate a different clientele.

But the Ethiopian food they used to cook and serve was still on the minds of some locals.

“We would constantly get requests from friends, people who know us from Nile and people who come here, “Lencho said. “So we decided to bring back the Ethiopian menu for weekends.”

While the cuisine is still unfamiliar to many in smaller cities and towns, it’s thriving in the Twin Cities and other metro areas. Lencho predicts Ethiopian food will become just as popular as Mexican and Chinese food is in the American psyche.

Outside of the Twin Cities, there’s a restaurant in Rochester and another in St. Cloud, where a university environment fosters diversity. He says Mankato is no different.

“There is a big demand for Ethiopian food here.” Lencho says that Minnesota State University plays a large role in that demand. “MSU’s admission of international students is expanding,” he explains. “There are a lot of students from Africa and the Middle East.”

Lencho says it also appeals to the health conscious and vegetarians. While some of the different stews are made from chicken, lamb or beef, the vegetarian dishes are often the most popular. He explains that Ethiopia is predominantly made up of Orthodox Coptic Christians, who avoid meat during fasting periods.

“People miss their meat. They began to cook their food to taste like meat,” Lencho said. The complex and time consuming process cooking with beans and lentils creates a hefty meal even for vegans.

“You simmer — put in spices, continue with low heat, test and cook for perfection.”

Lencho’s wife Dermi explains that a traditional Ethiopian meal is served and eaten as a group with one big plate of sauces and stews and spongy bread called injera. It’s custom to eat the meal using your hand.

“Ethiopian food is real cooking, Dermi said. “It’s not like warming up or cooking for five minutes. You cook with love. You use all of your energy and attention.”

New menu, old favorites

The new Ethiopian menu, which they reintroduced May 1st, features dishes Lencho and Dermi grew up with when they lived in Ethiopia. In the late 1980’s they fled the country when it was ruled by a repressive dictatorship. When they received refugee status at a camp in neighboring Kenya, a Lutheran church in Iowa City sponsored them before they moved to Mankato.

The bread injera is made from a unique grain that until recently was found nowhere else.

“There is a grain called teff,” explains Lencho. “It grows only in Ethiopia. It’s gluten free and rich in iron.”

Some people attribute Ethiopia’s large number of long distance marathon runners to this staple grain. And as Americans become more health conscious, there is a growing demand for teff in food co-ops and health food stores here.

Injera bread is the vessel used to eat an Ethiopian meal without utensils.

“It’s a flat bread — spongy, so you tear then you scoop from the stew and eat,” says Lencho.

Savoy will continue to serve up bar food and appeal to a wide range of customers through their live music, where local musicians like the Last Revel and Max Graham graced Savoy’s stage before making it big. Dermi and Lencho hope the new Ethiopian menu will diversify their customers.

They say they plan to be more assertive about advertising, which is a foreign concept in Ethiopian culture.

“One weakness of our business is advertising,” Lencho explains. “We come from the culture that is self-contained. We don’t advertise ourselves. You just let others speak about you instead of speaking for yourself.

But in a fast-paced economy like the United States, advertising is a mainstay for growth.

“Unless the word is out there, nobody knows you exist unless you explain because it’s a busy country. Capitalism is a busy lifestyle. You have to try to capture their attention.”

While they plan to utilize radio and social media as a means to get the word out, Lencho and Dermi emphasize how Mankato’s open-minded community is a major factor in their success.

“People who believe in diversity support it,” Lencho said. “It doesn’t mean we have not faced some negative experiences here and there. But we don’t want to dwell on that. Others don’t define life for us, we define our own life.”


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