Toronto·SURESH DOSS

This Ethiopian restaurant serves up delicious platters and intimate communal experiences

Warka Tree is located at 75 Willow Rd. in Guelph, Ont.

Warka Tree is located at 75 Willow Rd. in Guelph, Ont.

Hailu Wakasha and Sentayehu Tessema own Warka Tree in Guelph, Ont. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: So tell us why you're taking us to Guelph for Ethiopian food. 

Suresh: There's constant change and growth with community-driven restaurants in Guelph. When I was younger, the occasional visit to the city would introduce me to some of the cultural makeup of the neighbourhoods kind of surrounding the downtown core. So you have pockets of the Indian community, the Vietnamese, the Eritrean and the Ethiopian. 

I think that Guelph's automotive industry has really been a source for a large pool of jobs, particularly for newcomers. So you have hundreds of families that have moved here over the past two decades, including the family behind Warka Tree.

Ismaila: So tell me about this place. 

Suresh: It is run by a couple, Sentayehu Tessema and her husband Hailu Wakasha. But really, Sentayehu is the person you interact with whenever you go there. They're both from north central Ethiopia, from the Amhara region, from Dessie. 

Hailu came here for schooling and eventually sponsored Sentayehu and their son. They spent a little bit of time in Toronto. But Hailu said that he wanted to move to Guelph because of the Ethiopian community there. They're both from restaurant dynasties, so their family owned a number of food businesses back home. 

Hailu and Sentayehu are from Dessie, Ethiopia, where their families owned several restaurants. The couple eventually settled in Guelph. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: So I'm guessing this was something they wanted to get into here. 

Suresh: Oh, Hailu says without a doubt. From the start this is what they wanted to do, but they didn't have the capital that was required, 

So they opened a convenience store, which still exists to this day. At that convenience store, Sentayehu would have this secret menu of Ethiopian dishes, which started to get quite a lot of attention according to Hailu. 

So you're walking into a Hasty Mart to buy a lotto ticket and chips, and then you go pick up Ethiopian food there from Sentayehu. 

There were a small number of dishes and obviously everything was accompanied with, of course, injera — this Ethiopian flatbread that is fermented and has this wonderful spongy texture with this lingering sour quality to it, 

Warka Tree is well known for its platters. Collard greens, lentils and beets are often eaten wrapped around injera. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: OK, what were they ordering? 

Suresh: At the convenience store, the stewed vegetables were a thing that Sentayehu was really known for, but most notably Doro Wat. 

Doro Wat is one of my personal favourite Ethiopian dishes. You're picturing bone and protein that is cooked with a myriad of spices and clarified butter, which is essential. You cook it to the point where the sauce is reduced and it clings on to the meat. There's always a boiled egg in the dish. Sentayehu's version is really great. . 

I've had Doro Wat a number of times. This was striking to me because there was something about the spicing in there and you could tell that it wasn't spicing that is store bought, 

Doro Wat, the dish in the centre, is a stew cooked with one chicken drumstick and egg. It's part of the Warka platter, the restaurant's most popular dish. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: So now that they've opened a full restaurant, what do we order there? 

Suresh: I think the best way to enjoy the food is to get one of the platters. The recognizable plate of food with a variety of stews that sit on this thin bed of injera. It is a familiar way to enjoy Ethiopian food. 

But honestly, for me, I find that this is Sentayehu's cooking that's from the heart that's presented right in front of you. So in the vegetarian version, you would have no less than three types of lentils that have been cooked with spices. Then you will have a kale in there that's been stewed. You'll also have beet that's cooked with Berbere spice mixture. 

Injera, Ethiopian flatbread known for its spongy texture, is often served on the side with Warka Tree's platters. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: Now I'm guessing you want to share this with someone. 

Suresh: Yeah, and I think it's too much for one person. You want to share this with someone as you kind of pluck some injera, scoop up different stews. It is the best way to eat because no two mouthfuls will taste the same as you kind of dance between the spicy and sour and nutty notes. 

And of course, if you want meat, there is the Dora Wat version that you can get. But there's also the tibs, which are essentially cubed pieces of beef that have been cooked with berbere and mitmita, which is this spice mixture with cardamom and bird's eye chillies and clubs. 

There are two versions of the tibs. There's the mild and the red. 

Ismaila: Red? 

Suresh: Red, meaning more pepper goes into that version of the tibs.This bright red dish. It goes really well with injera because the injera cuts it down. It's really wonderful. 

Beef Key Wat is a beef stew cooked with berbere spices, cumin, garlic, onions and a bit of tomato puree for the sauce. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila: Given that these types of dishes are very communal, how is Warka Tree doing right now?

Suresh: This restaurant is in a plaza a few minutes outside of the downtown core, and they also have a patio, which they've been fully utilizing because diners are somewhat hesitant to be inside. 

I mean, you have a style of dining that is so personal and intimate, right? You're sitting down, you're having it with another person. [Hailu] mentioned that oftentimes this would be friends and lovers that would be feeding each other scoopfuls of the food. 

So the covered patio offers you an option if you want to do that. And the great thing about Sentayehu's food is that it is the kind of food that you don't mind eating when it's cooler because it just warms you up like a cozy blanket. 

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