Queen of Sheba
The Queen of Sheba: Serving up an Experience
By Hollie Niblett
You’ll find the mouth of the Nile River in Ethiopia. You’ll find the source of local Ethiopian cuisine and culture in Oklahoma at the Queen of Sheba Restaurant on the west side of Oklahoma City at 23rd Street and N. McArthur Boulevard.
The delicious, aromatic food offered up at Queen of Sheba is only a part of the dining experience. The nondescript building housing this fine restaurant belies the rich sensory and cultural adventure awaiting the person who steps inside. As you first walk in, your nose is filled with the deep, earthy spices used to create the dishes you will later devour. You’ll hear the distinct African rhythms of Ethiopian music. Your eyes will feast on folk art, Ethiopian photos and a large banner with the portrait of the late Ethiopian hero and leader, Haile Selassie; an ever-present figure in the home or business of any Ethiopian.
“I want to do more than just serve food. I want to provide an experience,” said owner, Mimi Younis. Mimi and her husband, Begib Younis, opened the Queen of Sheba six years ago. At the time it was the only Ethiopian restaurant in the OKC metro area. The Younis family moved to Oklahoma about 27 years ago after Mimi visited a relative here. After her visit she went home to Florida and told her husband she wanted to move to Oklahoma because it was quiet and beautiful. “When I told him I wanted to move to Oklahoma he said, ‘Where is that?’” she chuckled.
She said she chose the name ‘Queen of Sheba’ because most people associate Ethiopia with the well-known African queen. According to legend, the Queen of Sheba had a son with King Solomon; this son was Menelik I, the first Emperor of Ethiopia. This is a source pride for Habisha, or “ brown-skinned people,” which is what Ethiopians call themselves; along with the fact that Ethiopia is home to the only pre-colonial Christian church of sub-Saharan Africa and the only African nation that has never been successfully colonized. “The Italians tried, but we fought and ran them off,” she said.
“Ethiopians also introduced coffee to the world,” she said. The coffee plant came originally from the Kingdom of Kaffa, in the southwestern part of the country. In Amharic, the official language there, the word for coffee is bunna (pronounced boona). “In my country we have a special love for coffee,” she explained. “We make coffee all day long!”
To get the full flavor of just how much Ethiopians love coffee, you can make an advance request for a coffee ceremony as an after-dinner treat. A frequent occurrence in Mimi’s home country, a coffee ceremony is a traditional, informal gathering of friends and family where Ethiopian coffee is served after dinner, along with a snack of popcorn and sometimes habasha: warm, dense, soft bread. Incense is burned. A traditional coffee pot and cups are used to provide you the full experience of this special part of Ethiopian social life.
It is your taste buds, however, that will have the most delightful experience at the Queen of Sheba. You can start off with sambusa: an appetizer made of a flaky shell crust stuffed with beef, green chilies and herbs. Then move on to the succulent lamb, tender chicken or choice beef. Don’t have a taste for meat? No worries there; the vegetarian selection is varied and scrumptious. A few of the options are potatoes, lentils cooked in a hot berbere sauce and fresh collard greens cooked to perfection.
The most popular dishes are the combination platters of meat and veggies. This is the more traditional way of eating Ethiopian food: everyone sharing a cornucopia of food from one large plate. All dishes are served with a thin, spongy bread unique to this culture called injera, which is used as a utensil to scoop up the food and sauces. According to Mimi, eating with your hands is all part of the adventure. “If people ask for silverware I tell them I don’t have it. When I bring it later they say ‘Oh, it’s okay, we don’t need it,’” she said with a wise smile. “When you eat the food with your hands, it tastes much better.”
Red wine is a good pairing with the food, or even better, the traditional mead or honey wine called tej (pronounced tudge). Although first made for Ethiopian royalty, tej is now widely available in Ethiopia. It goes down easy, but be careful you don’t stumble out the door; this sweet nectar has a surprising bite. A full bar is available for the more familiar drink options.
To celebrate their 6th anniversary, the Queen of Sheba will be throwing a party on June 2nd with a buffet and live Ethiopian and African-style music by Mixology, which will be returning to perform twice per month throughout the spring and summer. Jazz is scheduled for Fridays. In addition to the regularly scheduled live music, every first Thursday of the month will be Poetry Night, where local poets can share their work. “These events draw a very diverse crowd,” said Mimi.
Even with all the culinary and cultural offerings available here, what is at the heart of the values of the Ethiopian people is found in something far less tangible than food or music; it is found in their profound respect for the guest; the “other”, if you will. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what color you are,” she said. “As a guest, you are very important. It is an important part of our culture to be respectful to the guest.”
But you’d be wrong to think you didn’t have an important responsibility as the guest at the Queen of Sheba. “If you come to someone’s house, you have to eat,” she laughed. “You cannot say no!”
You’d be hard pressed, on several levels, to say no to this queen.
(405) 606-8616Share story on Facebook Share story on Twitter Email a Friend.