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New Ethiopian Restaurant spices up Ithaca food scene

Nestled along the backside of The Ithaca Commons sits Hawi, a quaint and dimly lit hole-in-the-wall. The walls are embellished with woven baskets and African sketches of women and children. Ethiopian flags hang from the bar. As her afternoon customers polish off their plates, Citra Mohammed sets fresh glasses and napkins on the wooden tables. She smiles and thanks her customers for stopping by, inviting them to come again soon.

Hawi Ethiopian Restaurant, an eatery that specializes in Ethiopian cuisine, opened last week in downtown Ithaca. Located on South Cayuga Street, the restaurant offers traditional dishes and authentic Ethiopian culture to its visitors.

“We wanted to introduce Ithacans to Ethiopia,” said owner, Citra Mohammed, 24.

Mohammed, an Ethiopian native, moved to the United States three years ago. Since then, she has been working as a waitress in two Ethiopian restaurants in New York City. Here, she met fellow Ethiopian-native Dadise Degebasa, 32, and the two decided to team up and open a restaurant.

“You have to dream something to do something,” Degebasa said.

In the search for a location for the restaurant, Mohammed came across Ithaca as an ideal college town. After a few visits, the partners decided it was the place to start their business.

“We liked how peaceful it was, especially compared to Manhattan and all the craziness,” said Mohammed. “We like the close community.”

Hawi is the only Ethiopian restaurant in the Ithaca area. Mohammed said her restaurant is different from others in the area because of its individuality.

“We’re trying to create an entirely cultural Ethiopian atmosphere,” said Mohammed. “I feel like we’re doing that with the food.”

The restaurant menu offers meat, vegetarian and vegan options for its customers. The staple food, however, is injera, a flatbread made from teff. Teff is a grass fermented with water before being baked into large, floppy pancakes that serve as utensils and often, your plate.

For an individual serving at Hawi, the injera is served with a choice of three vegetables and two choices of meat. To eat the dish, one must simply tear off a piece of injera, grab some food with it, roll it up and eat it.

“Our food has a lot of spice and flavors in them,” said Degebasa, the head cook at Hawi. “And it’s for sharing.”

According to Mohammed, the Ethiopian culture is all about sharing.

“When you eat together you share from one platter,” Mohammed said. “The size of the plate gets larger with the size of the family.”

Mohammed and Degebasa want this to be the goal of Hawi. For Mohammed, the experience of eating at Hawi should be about sharing and being close to one another.

“We hope to create that closeness with customers,” Mohammed said, “We want to make Hawi a place where everybody knows each other.”

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