Menkir Tamrat brings Ethiopian heirlooms to the East Bay

Menkir Tamrat (Photo by Patricia Hayse Haller)

Oakland, California (USA) – Like most of us, Menkir Tamrat has a special place in his heart for the foods he grew up with, foods he learned to make from his mother. He’s a passionate cook, and also has an urge to grow things. He believes with his whole heart that the best, most authentic food is made from fresh, locally grown crops.

But access to those items has been difficult for Tamrat, who grew up in Ethiopia, a land of ancient crops that are rarely grown in the United States. Until recently, the farm-fresh ingredients he needed to re-create the tastes of his homeland were 9,000 miles away.

Ethiopia was once the breadbasket of Africa and even Europe, and has long been identified as one of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity. But even while the country was exporting its grains, produce, meat, and coffee, it preserved a culinary heritage that is truly unique.

“Because the Ethiopian culture has been isolated for such a long time, the cuisine has resisted the melting pot,” said Tamrat. “Even the Italian occupation [from 1936 to 1941] did not seem to change the palate of the local people.”

A Unique Cuisine

A typical Ethiopian meal is served from one large tray or basket set in the middle of the table. On that tray is a large flatbread called injera, which is made from ground, fermented teff, an ancient grain native to the region. Injera is also the main eating utensil. After washing hands, diners tear off pieces of injera with their right hands and use them to pick up bites of the various stews, spreads, and salads that have been mounded onto the injera.

The stews, known as wat, come in a great variety, but often begin with a quantity of slow-cooked onions. Some wat variations are made with lamb, beef, or chicken. Others are primarily vegetables or legumes. Because the Coptic Christian Church in Ethiopia observes numerous meatless fasts—not just during Lent—there are plenty of vegan options.

“I’ve seen what Ethiopian cuisine is capable of being, but I can’t get it here,” said Tamrat. “Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and other Asian cuisines, I’ve been told, are almost as good in the United States as they are there, because all the ingredients are now grown right here. You can’t say the same for our cuisine. We all came here to try to get educated and planned to go back. It never sank in that we were here to stay.” Read Full Report on Edible Communities.