A Lesson in Ethiopian Flavors
What did a top American supermarket chain see in one African immigrant’s food? Healthy dishes that recall the best of Indian and Middle Eastern Cuisine. Inside the success story of an up-and-coming food entrepreneur, plus his exceptional Ethiopian recipes.
Hiyaw Gebreyohannes shares fantastic Ethiopian recipes.Photo © John Kernick.
When he got in trouble as a kid, Hiyaw Gebreyohannes was punished with onion-chopping duty in the kitchen of his parents’ Ethiopian restaurant in Toronto. “Ethiopian men don’t go into the kitchen,” explains Gebreyohannes, whose parents fled the country in 1981 after Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by a coup. “When I went out to play and lost track of time, my mother would punish me, saying, ‘Now you’re in the kitchen with me.’ ”
But what started as a punishment ended up as love—and, later, a career. Gebreyohannes became adept at not only prepping vegetables but also helping his mother and aunts add spices like smoked paprika and cardamom to homestyle meat and vegetable stews. The kitchen became a place for talking about what was happening at school, and about his dreams.
In 2010, after periods of living in Ethiopia and New York City, Gebreyohannes was back in his mother’s restaurant and started thinking out loud about launching a business. “It’s time to get this food to more people,” he told her. “You should package it. Wait. That sounds like a good idea.”
With help from Hot Bread Kitchen, a nonprofit bakery that also provides culinary training for immigrants and low-income New Yorkers, Gebreyohannes created a line of fresh, vegan prepared food called Taste of Ethiopia this year. When Gebreyohannes made his pitch to Omar Burhan, director of purchasing for New York City’s famed Fairway Market, the executive’s initial response was, “Who’s looking for Ethiopian?” But after tasting the silky turmeric-infused cabbage and spicy red lentils, he placed an order. Now, Taste of Ethiopia is available at some of New York City’s best markets, including Foragers City Grocer, Brooklyn Fare, Whole Foods and Union Market.
The appeal of Gebreyohannes’s food is easy to understand: The flavors are rich and layered, using aromatic spices that are familiar in Middle Eastern and Indian dishes. Dishes are spicy but never blazing hot, as Ethiopians tend to prefer the mild heat of berbere, a spice blend made with fenugreek, dried chile pepper and ajwain, a thyme-like seed. Much of Gebreyohannes’s food is also meatless and dairy-free, which is not a modern concession but a traditional one. As he explains, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church bans those ingredients on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Lent. In Ethiopia, he says, “you’re a vegan—at least part of the time.”