Menkir Tamrat brings Ethiopian heirlooms to the East Bay
By Patricia Hayse Haller
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.”
Pictured: A meatless selection of spiced stews and spreads served on injera at Finfiné. Clockwise from top are: Gommen (recipe on next page); Buticha (ground chickpea spread with lemon juice and hot peppers); Dinnich-ena Carrot Alitcha (spiced potatoes and carrots); Tikil-Gommen Alitcha (spiced cabbage); Fasolia-ena Carrot Alitcha (string beans and carrots); Missir Azeefa (a spicy green lentil stew); Ater Kik Alitcha (organic split pea stew); and (center) Missir Wet (lentils in a rich berberé sauce). (Photo by Stacy Ventura)
Ancient Crops, New Markets
Revolution, dictatorship, and famine kept them here—and shut off exports from Ethiopia. As a result, Tamrat said, “People started using what was easy to get. We became complacent, and Ethiopian restaurants in North America have given way to the ease of using cabbage, carrots, and haricots verts. They can be served in the same way but they are not as strong in flavor or nutrition [as the ancient Ethiopian vegetables].”
A manager in high tech, Tamrat was used to solving problems, and he was convinced he could solve this one. “There should not be excuses,” he said. “We have the seeds. And we have the climate, because the Ethiopian Highlands are much like the Bay Area. Even though Ethiopia is near the equator, they have the elevation.”
As it turns out, refusing to accept excuses is transforming both Tamrat’s life and the options available to chefs and home cooks in the Bay Area and beyond. It has led him to a new calling—creating a sustainable local supply of authentic Ethiopian ingredients; introducing some of the world’s oldest crop varieties to new markets; and preserving agricultural treasures of his homeland. Meanwhile, the farmers, chefs, and restaurant owners he is working with have found new inspiration along with the new varieties of peppers, greens, and grains.
Famine at Home
Originally from the town of Wello in the north of Ethiopia, Tamrat moved to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, as a boy, so he grew up knowing both the countryside and the city. He came to the United States in 1971, and like many Ethiopians arriving at that time, was here for an education. After earning he undergraduate degree and MBA, he might have returned to Ethiopia but for the 1974 revolution, which brought to power a Soviet-backed military ruler, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mariam used mass killings, forced deportation, and hunger as weapons to control the people. One result was a series of famines in the 1980s that left one million dead of starvation and made Ethiopian food the butt of dark jests in the United States. Another was that student émigrés like Tamrat could not safely return to their homeland.
“In the 1960s, Ethiopians used to come to America and Europe to go to school, and then they went back home,” said Charlie Zawde, co-owner of the Ethiopian restaurant Finfiné in Berkeley and a good friend of Tamrat’s. “In 1974, the revolution came, and they said, ‘You can’t come back.’”
So Tamrat stayed to work and by 1991, when Mengistu was deposed and a democratic government was established, Tamrat was working as a semiconductor computer operations manager in Silicon Valley.
“While doing the day job in high tech, I still had a passion for cuisine and growing things,” he said. “I thought about going to an agriculture school, but they were all in the boonies.” So he grew what he could in his backyard in Fremont. What he couldn’t grow—like the blended dried pepper spice berberé, used to flavor many Ethiopian dishes—he would have his mother send from home. When she passed away in 1998, the realization hit: he couldn’t call her anymore for seeds, recipes, spices, and all the special things that mothers typically provide.
One item Tamrat particularly missed was a honey wine his mother made for holidays and special occasions. Called tej, the wine has a very different taste from European mead, thanks to the presence of gesho among its ingredients. Gesho is extracted from a shrub of the same name endemic to Ethiopia. Its slight bitterness is reminiscent of hops, giving tej a balance of honey-sweet and bitter-dry notes that perfectly complement the complex flavors of many Ethiopian dishes.
Tej has not been widely available in the United States, and the samples Tamrat found were of questionable or inconsistent quality, so in 2005 he set out to produce and bottle an authentic, premium tej as good as his mother’s. He started growing gesho in his backyard. After consulting with Charlie Zawde, whose father was the first person to bottle honey wine in Ethiopia (in 1946), Tamrat commissioned Thomas Coyne in Livermore to develop and document a recipe that could be produced and bottled. Then he turned to Michael Faul at Rabbit’s Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, who used his extensive experience to tweak the recipe, and agreed to produce and bottle it under the label Yamatt Tej.
Tamrat started selling the honey wine to Ethiopian restaurants. “In the process,” he said, “I started finding out about their weak areas.” One of the biggest of these was an inconsistent supply of berberé. Another was the limited availability of teff, the tiny Ethiopian grain used to make injera. Finally, Tamrat found that the restaurants, unable to obtain most traditional Ethiopian greens, were using cheap, readily available substitutes that fell short of the authentic varieties in several ways.
Tamrat contrasts the process of preparing Ethiopian kales, which might require long cooking times and the laborious work of cutting away the tough parts of leaves, with the ease of using the commonly available ingredients: “You take a nice, soft cabbage, sauté it up for ten minutes, and add the spices.” The result? “To some extent, the cuisine has been seduced by the modern hybrid stuff. In the process, you lose nutrition and flavor.”
Tamrat started delving deeper into the tension between the supply of and demand for authentic ingredients, looking for ways to improve both. Then in 2009 he was laid off from his job as a business manager specializing in e-commerce applications for IBM in San Jose. After 23 years in the high-tech industry, he let his passion carry him and launched a campaign to develop an infrastructure of quality ingredients for Ethiopian cuisine in the Bay Area.
Tamrat started by growing two kinds of Ethiopian peppers: mitmita, a hot pepper about 3 inches long, and Mareko Fana, a 6- to 7-inch-long mild pepper that is a variety of berberé. (Berberé is the name both of a pepper and of the Ethiopian spice blend that incorporates this pepper.)
“I had tried to make the berberé using off-the-shelf chiles,” Tamrat said, “but it just wouldn’t come out right. I didn’t realize that [using authentic peppers] made that much difference—in color, in heat, and in taste.”
Lacking sufficient space in his home garden in Fremont, Tamrat collaborated with Ramón Ramírez, who grows corn, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, and more on a 14-acre organic farm near the Fremont BART station. (See Edible East Bay Harvest 2010 for a story on Ramírez Farm). That first crop in 2009 did well, so the next spring Tamrat germinated 5,500 seedlings at his house, intending to grow them on land owned by an Oakdale family. At the last minute, however, the family pulled out. “They got cold feet, worrying about workers insurance and other issues,” he said. “So it was panic time. I had all these seedlings and no place to put them.”
That’s when Sibella Kraus, president and director of SAGE, introduced Tamrat to Fred Hempel, owner of the 9.5-acre Baia Nicchia Farm & Nursery at the Sunol AgPark. A plant biologist, Hempel is best known for his tomatoes, which he breeds and sells both at farmers’ markets and directly to the chefs at high-end restaurants who are always seeking novel flavors and shapes.
Hempel offered Tamrat the space for a couple of rows of peppers. In exchange, Tamrat agreed to let Hempel sell them to his customers. The peppers thrived in Baia Nicchia’s well-tended organic soil, and what started as a low-key, informal agreement has blossomed into an exciting partnership.
For Hempel, it was revealing. “I think I was a very typical American in that my view of Ethiopia was colored by scant news coverage, which was usually about famine,” he said. “Finding out that the Highlands climate was so similar to here—I didn’t know that. I think a lot of times when people are starving, what gets in the news is the most dramatic picture of what’s going on. So it’s like this whole middle portion of a country with 10,000-foot plateaus where most of the crops are grown is sort of invisible to us in the West. We just have no clue.”
Tamrat says that working with Fred has been priceless. “I’ve learned so much from him. This is my way of making up for not going to agriculture school.” Tamrat also watched Hempel take the peppers beyond Ethiopian restaurants and into new markets. He sold the green Mareko Fana peppers as an alternative to padrón frying peppers to restaurants like Sea Salt and Gather in Berkeley and Commis in Oakland. He got chefs to try the mature peppers in a variety of salsas, chutneys, and jams. He arranged side-by-side tastings with padróns at farmers’ markets that had customers buying Mareko Fana by the pounds. And he mixed the dried mature peppers with his red-stemmed peppermint to create a tea that San Francisco–based Fruit Guys has been buying to put in their home-delivery produce boxes.
“I never thought the European market would be interested, but they were selling like crazy,” said Tamrat. “I’m ecstatic to be seeing all these applications that I’ve never seen before.” In fact, he got so excited to see his “Ethiopian peppers” featured on the Sea Salt menu that he took a picture of the menu and sent it to friends in Ethiopia.
As summer 2010 gave way to fall, Tamrat and Hempel decided to try some Ethiopian brassicas—members of the mustard family, which also includes kale, cabbage, and collard greens. Tamrat got seeds for four varieties from Ethiopia, and they planted a few short test rows at Baia Nicchia. Two are similar to leaf cabbage or kale. One has larger leaves, more like collard greens. The fourth is a seed mustard with robust seeds so rich in oil that Ethiopian cooks crush them in their clay injera pans to keep the bread from sticking. “It’s like a primitive PAM,” said Tamrat.
“We watched them grow in amazement,” Hempel wrote of the greens on his blog (baianicchia.blogspot.com). “They grew so fast, yet they were so tender. Then we started taking leafy shoots to our chef collaborators, who were not shy about using them.”
One of these collaborators was Sean Baker, the chef and co-owner of Gather restaurant in Berkeley. “I’m really looking forward to deepening my relationship with those varietals,” he said. “What wonderful flavors they had when they were young and they hadn’t gotten their bitter qualities yet! This spring, we were sprouting several varieties of lentils and red quinoa, and mixing them with curry leaf vinaigrette and putting it on a plate with charred tomato, tahini, and dried pepper purée. Putting the Ethiopian microgreens on top really tied the dish together and added a wonderful mustard flavor.”
Tamrat also took the mature greens to Ethiopian restaurateurs, including to his friend Charlie Zawde at Finfiné. Zawde had just decided to make the switch to organic ingredients. “I started improving in small ways at a time,” Zawde said. “I wanted to make sure the meat is grass fed and the vegetables are organic and seasonal. I go three times a week to different farmers’ markets in Berkeley, and then on Sunday to Temescal in Oakland.” For him, getting authentic Ethiopian greens grown on a certified organic farm was a dream come true.
“Menkir is a big part of what I’m trying to do here,” said Zawde. “Both of us have a passion for cooking organic food. In fact, he’s one of the best chefs I’ve ever met. Then he met Fred and everything started connecting.” Now Zawde buys tomatoes as well as greens from Baia Nicchia, and he’s watched his clientele change from students looking for a cheap meal to “older Berkeleyites who know the difference.”
The greens did so well that Hempel and Tamrat plan to plant them throughout the farm this winter as a cover crop. “Mustards in general are good for cover crops because they grow fast and shade out all the weeds you don’t want,” said Hempel. “But at the same time, we’ll be harvesting them and selling them.”
Sean Baker was so excited about the greens and the peppers that he toured Baia Nicchia farm in August and spent some time talking to Tamrat about the other Ethiopian crops he is working to market—including teff, the tiny grain used to make injera.
The smallest grain on the planet—the seeds are less than 1 mm in diameter—teff is a nutritional powerhouse. High in dietary fiber, protein, iron, calcium, and other minerals, it is also naturally gluten-free. And, until recently, it was practically impossible to obtain in the United States.
“If we are going to be immigrants here, we have to have a reliable supply of key, essential ingredients, and teff is one of those,” said Tamrat. “What I want to do is build up the supply line.”
Last year, hearing that teff was being grown near Reno by the University of Nevada Extension, Tamrat went there to see for himself. As he drove into the fields, the wind rippled through the grain, making it roll and dance in undulating waves. It was such an emotional moment, he said, that he had to pull over.
“When I was a child, it was that sway [of the teff in the fields] that I remember. It took me back. I remember as a kid, the teff coming up knee high and swaying. This was the first time I saw a teff field in America. I had to stop and film it. I wanted to roll all over it. It was incredible.”
But the Nevada teff was tall, nearly to Tamrat’s shoulders, and it had a tendency to fall over. He discovered they were using fertilizer, making it grow faster and taller than in Ethiopia, where it has been grown organically for thousands of years. Now he is working with Dale Coke at Coke Farm in San Juan Bautista to grow what he believes is the only organically produced teff in the United States. (Pictured here) This year, they planted one acre of red teff and one of white. As it neared harvest, it was only about 3 feet high—more like what Tamrat remembers from Ethiopia—and it was standing straight, waving gently with the breeze.
“Pure teff is not widely available yet. Now, farmers are getting into it and building a supply, so we don’t have to wait for the boat to come in.” And as the supply builds, Tamrat is convinced, the demand will expand beyond the Ethiopian restaurants and injera bakeries. He is especially excited about growing the less common white teff, which he believes will have a wider appeal to Western markets. “What makes white flour attractive, white teff has naturally—except that it’s gluten free,” he said.
Tamrat gave some of the teff flour to Sean Baker, who plans to try making pasta with it. “I’m really excited about the teff,” said Baker. “I’m definitely going to dive into that and some of the other things Menkir and Fred are doing. Things like this give you an opportunity to set your cuisine apart and make it more personalized. When you’re bringing in unusual varietals that your guests have never seen before, they walk out inspired. At Gather, we want people to walk out knowing more about food and culture and the history of food.”
The Next Steps
With Baia Nicchia immersed in a full-blown exploration of Ethiopian crops, Tamrat is looking for more ways to bring the ingredients his mother cooked with to his home in the Bay Area. He has planted a small test plot of a partially hulled, easy-to-husk variety of barley called senefgebs (“the lazy person’s barley” in the Amharic language), and he hopes to convince a local microbrewery to combine it with the gesho to make an Ethiopian-style beer. He’s also planted safflower and niger, whose oil-rich seeds are important ingredients in Ethiopian cooking, but are sold in the United States mainly as birdseed.
“Sometimes you have to play,” Tamrat said. “And sometimes, you’re just playing and it takes you to something you haven’t thought about.”
Hempel is already testing the market for some of these crops, and expects the safflower to do well as an edible flower in high-end restaurants. “The safflower is beautiful and the flowers have a nice taste, especially right when bees are pollinating them and they are very sweet,” he said.
For Tamrat, the ultimate goal is to make his playful explorations sustainable. So far, he said, “neither the scale nor the profits exist to make this pay my rent. And, at some point, my family is going to say, ‘You’re having all this fun, but where’s the beef?’”
How or when that will happen, he doesn’t know. “Because I don’t have the answer, I probably avoid the question,” he said. “At the end of the day, you work at something you have a knack for, and you just have faith that something will happen.” He shrugged. “I’ve done what needed to be done to have the house and two cars. I struggled through that, but it’s almost like it wasn’t me. This is a lot more fulfilling.” •
Patricia Hayse Haller is a freelance writer based in Pleasanton. Contact her at phaller@comcast(dot)net.
Tamrat makes this dish during the colder months, when the greens are most tender. East Bay readers who want to prepare an authentic rendition of this dish can buy the abesha gomen (Ethiopian brassica) from Dale Coke at the Palo Alto Saturday or Menlo Park Sunday farmers’ markets, at least for now. For additional information, contact menkir(at)yahoo(dot)com
2–3 bunches abesha gomen (Ethiopian brassica) or collard greens
½ cup chopped shallots
¼ cup chopped garlic
¼ cup finely grated ginger
⅓ to ½ cup good vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 1 mitmita (Ethopian hot pepper) or a serrano or jalapeño, split in 4 lengthwise
Optional: 1 tablespoon lemon juice
Rinse the greens in cold water. Pull out and discard some of the bigger stems and veins. At this point you can either blanch the greens quickly in boiling water and chop them or just chop them without blanching.
Meanwhile, heat several tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a skillet and sweat the shallots (don’t let them caramelize). Then add the chopped garlic and grated ginger and sauté gently for 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the chopped greens and cover the pot. Stir occasionally to ensure that the shallots and garlic do not caramelize at the bottom of the pan. Add remaining oil. If the mixture begins to look dry as the greens are cooking down, add a small amount of water. Continue to cook covered, stirring occasionally on low heat for about 30 minutes, depending on your taste and the tenderness of the greens.
Add salt and pepper to taste. If adding the hot pepper, do it a couple of minutes before turning off heat. Add the lemon juice and slightly mix the greens before serving.
Note: Carnivores might like to try the rendition of this dish known as Gomen Besiga. Start by braising about 2 pounds of beef or lamb rib meat with the bones until well cooked and then just follow the recipe above, adding everything else to the meat in the pan.