WELCOMES ALL COMERS
BY SARAH HENRY
Shortly after returning from a visit to Ethiopia, fellow food writer Molly Watson walked into Abesha, a restaurant in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, sniffed gleefully, ordered the vegetarian combo, and hungrily tucked in. “This tastes like the best food I had in Addis Ababa,” she concluded.
That’s the kind of praise that makes owner Amesiyas Amha Wube beam. Wube runs this four-year old restaurant specializing in Ethiopian cuisine. His 73-year-old mother, Tsehay Selasie, oversees the kitchen. “She makes food that comes from the heart. You can taste that in her recipes,” says Wube of his mother, who worked for years at another local Ethiopian restaurant. It’s a family affair—a sister is a waitress, a brother helps with the business side—as well as a popular spot with Ethiopian and Eritrean newcomers and long-time residents. Of the estimated 20,000 people in the Bay Area who hail from these East African countries many live in Oakland, which is dotted with Ethiopian restaurants.
Wube is no stranger to food: He worked at Whole Foods Market in Berkeley as a produce department supervisor for nine years. In 2007 he started his own green cleaning company, still running, which services corporate clients. But he’d long toyed with the idea of opening a café. Originally from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Wube attended high school in Germany. His mother came to the Bay Area in the late 1980s to visit extended family. Wube followed in 1997 at age 22 and moved to Berkeley, where he still lives. “We left for a lot of reasons, mostly economical. Things are better back there now,” says Wube, 36, who will visit along with his wife and children this summer for the first time since he left as a teenager.
He’ll return to the country of his birth as an owner of an Ethiopian restaurant in his adopted homeland. “When we first started, it was mostly Ethiopians who came, it was all word of mouth. But now we have everyone,” says Wube, who says some Ethiopian restaurants only cater to American tastes while others are frequented only by immigrants. It’s a point of pride for Wube that his restaurant reflects the diversity of the area.
The most popular menu item among Americans, Wube says, is the vegetarian combo featuring hearty stews known as wots. Ethiopians and Eritreans seek out the traditional beef tartare dish known as kitfo, which is seasoned with spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh. One woman shows up at the restaurant at 4am to make the day’s injera: This traditional Ethiopian flatbread, a fermented, spongy crepe, serves as a base for the array of wot and also as an eating utensil. It’s made with the tiny millet-like grain teff, but Abesha’s version includes a little barley, too. The restaurant is in the process of expanding its kitchen space, partly so it can start selling injera directly to the public.
As with injera preparation, wots call on cooking techniques not common in Western kitchens. Most start with chopped onions, slow-cooked in a dry skillet with continuous stirring until the onions are golden and caramelized. Vegetarian wots at Abesha feature red lentils, yellow split peas, garbanzo beans, collard greens, mushrooms, and a carrot-cabbage-potato combo. Timatim fitfit is a cold dish featuring fresh tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños mixed with injera. Meat wots are made with beef, lamb, or chicken. Berbere, a complex chile and spice blend that includes garlic, ginger, cardamom, and fenugreek seeds, is a signature taste of this culture’s cuisine and features in the red lentil and chickpea wots at Abesha.
It’s not uncommon to find the restaurant’s tables filled with groups of men dining together. “It’s our tradition to eat together and to share food family-style,” explains Wube. “No one eats alone in Ethiopia. A lot of people here have no family, they don’t want to eat by themselves, so they come and eat together at the restaurant.”
The name of the restaurant derives from the term Habesha, which Wube says is used by both Ethiopians and Eritreans to refer to themselves, Amhara and Tigray-Tigrinya ethnic groups, as well as to the region. It serves as a way to eliminate distinctions between different people and instead celebrate unity. “We all eat injera, wots, and kitfo. We may have differences in our politics, but the food, culture, and traditions are the same,” says Wube. “We are one. And everybody is welcome here. Food brings people together here, not just Ethiopians, Americans too.” •
4929 Shattuck Ave, Oakland