Ethiopia's history is long, strange, and tumultuous. Tucked into the Horn of Africa, it's bordered by Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti. It's association with Soviet bloc nations in the '70s and '80s helped the country build one of the largest, best-equipped armies in Africa. But all that firepower does nothing for the populace when drought comes calling, with famine in tow. When you add extreme political corruption and instability to the picture, it's easy to see why, for all its rich history and cultural treasures, it's a place where someone might risk everything to leave.
"I escaped from Ethiopia to Sudan," says Jember Ameha, the owner of Collierville's Blue Nile restaurant. "It was a time when you were either for or against the government, and if you were against the government, they would try to find and kill you."
With help from Memphis' Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Ameha was able to immigrate to America to start a new life. He worked a number of jobs -- from operating a forklift to filling various management positions for Schering-Plough -- and he integrated well into Midtown, where he regularly shot tournament pool at the P&H Cafe. But he missed Ethiopia. Well, at least he missed the food.
"I always wanted to open up a restaurant, but I didn't want to open something that wouldn't last," he says of weighing the risks a family man takes by going it alone in the the food business against his life-long desires. Ameha eventually talked the P&H's former proprietress, storied brew-slinger Wanda Wilson, into letting him host an Ethiopian night at her popular beer joint.
"It was so beautiful," Ameha says. "In the middle of it all, Wanda was there serving food in an Ethiopian dress. And 99 percent of the people who tried the food loved it."
Still, it would be a few more years before Ameha would feel comfortable enough to take the leap. While shopping around for used restaurant equipment he visited an ice cream parlor on Poplar in Collierville and got just the break he'd been looking for.
"I asked the owner what she wanted for all the equipment, and she said, 'If you'll take over my lease, I'll give you a very sweet deal.'"
With its eye-relaxing lavender walls and retro, diner-style furnishings, the Blue Nile's atmosphere is a strange hybrid of classic American convenience and exotica. The pungent, drool-inducing aroma of berbere, the dominant, curry-like spice mix in Ethiopian cuisine, is thick, and videos of traditional African music play behind the bar.
As a rule, all menu items at the Blue Nile are cooked fresh-to-order, but during weekday lunches, a well-stocked $7.99 buffet dominates the scene.
"I hadn't wanted to do a buffet, but we have so many business people and FedEx employees who come in for lunch," Ameha says. "If you're cooking to order it's not always easy to make sure they get the kind of service you want to give them. Some said, 'You should have a buffet,' and I am always listening to my customers."
Pork-obsessed Memphians will be sad to discover that, due to Islamic and Orthodox Christian influences, there's no pig on the menu. But all 'cue aside, the Blue Nile's pungent beef stews, tartars (kitfo), succulent chicken (and egg!) curries, and hearty combinations of potatoes, carrots, lentils, collard greens, and cabbage should appeal to die-hard soul food connoisseurs.
"Many people have this idea that Ethiopian food is over-spiced. And yes, it is," Ameha says, explaining that the chili powders are blended with special herbs so as not to burn the mouth. Ethiopian-style vegetables and stews (which almost always begin with a slow, caramelizing sauté of red onions) also take flavor from the ghee, a clarified butter laden with garlic and ginger. Also, much of the heat is mitigated by the injera, a spongy, stretchy pancake-like bread made from fermented teff flower.
"Once people have Ethiopian food, they crave it," Ameha says. It was his own cravings for good home cooking that helped him meet his chef Eshete Gebretsadi, who -- as it happens -- is also his wife .
"When someone [originally from Ethiopia] invites you to their home for food, you don't say no," Ameha explains. "My wife's family was the only Ethiopian family in Germantown. I met them over a dinner."
For a man who always dreamed of opening a restaurant, the meeting was fortuitous.
"I can't cook at all," Ameha admits. Fortunately for residents of Collierville and adventurous Memphians, Gebretsadi can. Her Doro Wat -- chicken & boiled eggs simmered in a luscious sauce of berbere -- is rivaled only by her butter-sauteed beef (Lega Tibs.)
The Blue Nile offers a number of vegetarian dishes, but the near-universal use of ghee is bad news for vegans. There's no bar or wine list, but a modest selection of foreign and domestic beer is available.