East Africans in Oakland: A love and devotion to Ethiopian food

Fetlework Tefferi inside the restaurant she owns, Cafe Colucci, on Telegraph and Alcatraz.

Fetlework Tefferi inside the restaurant she owns, Cafe Colucci, on Telegraph and Alcatraz.

Many of the 20,000 people from Ethiopia and Eritrea living in the Bay Area call Oakland home. Oakland North is taking a look at the culture and history of the Ethiopian or Eritrean community in Oakland with “East Africans in Oakland” a series of profiles on everyday people living in the city.

When Fetlework Tefferi was a little girl in Michigan in the late 1980s, people would tell her “Ethiopians are starving” and that “You must be glad you’re here—you’re eating.”

“I was thinking ‘Why are they saying that?’” says Tefferi, who is of Ethiopian descent and moved to the US from Ethiopia at a young age. “I did not understand it. I was thinking, ‘They must not know us. They don’t know the food I was eating when I was growing up.’”

Tefferi is bright-eyed and animated, with short brown curly hair that has streaks of blonde in it. She’s sitting behind the desk of her office in the Brundo Culinary Studio, which she owns and recently opened inside the American Steel warehouse on Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. Tefferi also owns an Ethiopian spice shop by the same name, which is located on Telegraph Avenue next door to Café Colluci, the restaurant she has owned for 20 years.

Tefferi has made promoting Ethiopian food and culture to the world her life’s work. She travels to the high plateaus of Ethiopia every few months to check on her growing spice business, and when she’s stateside she’s managing the restaurant, checking in on the spice shop or organizing cooking classes at the culinary studio. She’s also writing a book about Ethiopian spices.

Though she worked as a banker before all things food became her job, Tefferi was first inspired to work with food when she was a little girl in the Midwest and people in her new country thought her entire homeland was engulfed in a terrible famine, and she should be overjoyed about eating pizza and hamburgers.

“People need to understand there is a whole way of cooking and food, and I wasn’t deprived. I was like, ‘I want to introduce this food, and continue to promote the positive side of it,” Tefferi says.

Food should “heal a person” and “nourish you,” Tefferi believes. The food she promotes is based on vegetables, unique spices and grains like teff, which is gluten-free and used to make injera, the traditional Ethiopian flatbread. All this food is slowly cooked, and above all else, healthy, Tefferi says.

In Ethiopia, Tefferi system, grandmothers and mothers instruct the next generation in their household’s culinary traditions, and each house develops a taste unique from its neighbors. Girls start preparing salads and spices when they’re 10 years old for holiday meals. A woman who prepares good food and has control over her kitchen is called a “balemoya”—a woman of talent.

It takes time to prepare the traditional food, and attention to process is part of the tradition. In her culture, basil is called “sacred basil.” It takes two weeks to prepare for the sauce for doro wat, a curry typically made with chicken that Tefferi says is the national dish. “You have to sun dry it, it gets separated, fresh garlic is added, fresh basil is added, then you mix it, you marinate it, you dry it,” Tefferi says of the pepper process. “It’s really highly layered, just to make peppers.”

She’s tried to transfer that taste, and experience, to her restaurant. The spices, and even the peas and lentils for Café Colluci are imported from Ethiopia, “to make sure we get the real authentic taste,” she says.

In 1990, Tefferi quit her job as a banker in Los Angeles to move to Oakland and start Café Colluci with two friends. The Ethiopian restaurant is small and popular, with a lot of vegetarian options on the menu.

She soon found the work of cooking and running a restaurant was perfect for her. “I always had the desire to create the food that I ate when I was young, so [the idea of owning] the restaurant really appealed to me,” she says. “Then I got into it. I said, ‘I like this, I can cook, I don’t get tired when I cook. I really enjoyed it. When I started enjoying it, I started developing a business for it.”

At that time, during the early 1990s, North Oakland already had a vibrant Ethiopian community for decades, and there were also a few restaurants specializing in Ethiopian and Eritrean food on Telegraph Avenue. But the number of North African restaurants in the area has since at least doubled, as the population of North Africans living in the area has slowly grown.

Tefferi says she thinks the large number of restaurants is tied to Ethiopian culture. No one eats alone in Ethiopia, she says. “One guy would not sit by himself at a table and eat, that’s just not sacred,” she says, and people gather at meal time to talk about everything. There are a large number of young single men in Oakland who don’t really cook for themselves much, and restaurants offer the opportunity to eat with a group, whether the people at the table are familiar or not, she says.

At Café Colucci, the kitchen staff prepare a base sauce that can be purchased separately from the meal as a take out item — then they just have to add meat to cook it at home. “They get together because they have to eat communally,” Tefferi says of the young Ethiopian men who typically buy the pre-made sauce.

North Oakland’s North African restaurants aren’t joined by a formal business association, but owners and employees know one another and are “socially intertwined,” Tefferi says. “We go to the same church, or if someone gets married, everyone gets together.”

While working at the restaurant, Tefferi says she had an “erratic” spice supply from Ethiopia, so in 2006, she travelled there herself on business for the first time. She went to learn how the spices are made, and studied the blending, selecting and growing skills of spice makers, especially well known older women, who she would sit with for hours and interview on the process of making spices. She acquired a space to manually process materials and create spice blends. Many of the seeds are unique and grow in the wild, like Ethiopian oats, which are found in the high plateaus of the country.

She now goes back every few months, so often that she estimates she’s there “five months a year.” She’s working on the factory she owns where spices are blended, looking to add solar energy and a larger, more functional building, where she can start packaging spices. She employs 32 women, currently, and hopes that her staff will grow to 200 workers.

On her desk in the Brundo office, she has a small, round black clay pot that is used to make butter and was made by one of the women that work for her in Ethiopia. Tefferi strung a necklace around the jar and uses it to hold jewelry now.

As with food, sharing is very important in Ethiopian culture, Tefferi says, and so since she has been successful, she feels the obligation to help others.  “They say rich is not when you have money, it’s when your goodness impacts others positively,” Tefferi says.

For her, it’s teaching everyone she can about the benefits of Ethiopian food and trying to improve lives back home as well. “This is something the world should share,” she says.

16 Comments

  1. Todd

    Great article, Cafe Colucci is awesome. You may want to remove the editor’s comments about 1/3 of the way through the story.

  2. Quinton

    I like the feel and intent of this article.

    However, it is a fatal error to refer to Ethiopia as part of “North Africa”.

    Regionally, Ethiopia is in East Africa. Referring to it as part of North Africa is a failed attempt to connect it to the so-called middle east in the same way that it happens with Egypt (more understandable though because of the heavy arab influence on Egypt and it’s actual location in North Africa).

    Notice how rarely you hear Sudan referred to as North Africa and Ethipoia is south east of Sudan.

    • Ryan Phillips Post author

      Quinton, you’re right! It was indeed a fatal error, Ethiopia is regionally part of East Africa. I’ve changed the headline to “East Africans in Oakland” which is what it should have been called all along. Thanks for helping us catch the mistake.

  3. ethiopian1

    you know we are in east africa right? Cmon son. Great article but the reference to North Africa is distracting. Thanks for highlighting though. Much appreciated

  4. ethiopian1

    Hey just saw the change was made and I want to commend you for that. Thank again for highlighting.

  5. Selam

    The article says, “When Fetlework Tefferi was a little girl in Michigan in the late 1980s, people would tell her …”

    Further down it says, “In 1990, Tefferi quit her job as a banker in Los Angeles to move to Oakland and start Café Colluci with two friends.”

    Are your numbers correct?

    How can a little girl, perhaps, 5 or 6 years old in 1908′s, was able to finish school, may be, go to college, and work as a banker, and quit in 1990 — all these in less than 10 years?

    I think, this lady is in her mid 50′s at the time, and she was “little girl” in the 1960′s.

    Just my observation. Cheers,

    • ToSelam

      Why you are worried about her age and numbers?
      The important message here is her business idea and her activities which is helping to promote Ethiopian culture and bringing some opportunities for Ethiopians at home.

      Ayi Habesha :-(

      • Luke

        Hey, I think Selam has a point.

        If she was a “little girl in the late 1980′s” (say 1987 or 1988), then she “quit her job as a banker in 1990″ (this means in just 2 or 3 years, she grew up from a little child to a professional banker – which doesn’t make sense at all).

        I don’t think Selam was attacking the lady at all. It shows that Selam has good eyes for numbers.

        Rather the writer did not get his facts right or made a typo error. If the writer had all the facts, then this “age discussion” would not have taken place.

        Ethiopian Setoch Edmeyachewin Medebeq Yiwodaloo!

  6. Lydia

    Thanks for this great article. A remarkable lady, entrepreneurial spirit by a woman who’d dedicated her time to promote Ethiopian food, culture. Very commendable. I came across many ignorant people myself who often asked me how people managed to live in Ethiopia without food etc. The western media especially BBC portrays the country so badly, don’t report much on positives, the very rich food culture in Ethiopia. Ethiopian food has massive potential to be as popular as Chinese/Indian. So, thanks for this wonderful article, big thanks for Mrs Tefferi for her endless efforts, dedication.

    Dear Selam,

    It is perfectly possible for Mrs Tefferi to be college student in the 80s and Banker in 90s. College is part of growing up! What is your reason for focusing on her age rather than her massive achievements? As somebody said it above “Ayyi Habesha” :)

  7. that is soooo cool fette :)

  8. Fekade Moges

    I just want to say thank you for your dedication for yourself and for introducing our beautiful culture and as well as our beautiful country. Even though, Ethiopia is known as a poor and starving country in the world, we have a wonderful culture that we have to proud of. Keep up the good job proud of you. FM from Purdue University Indiana

  9. romish

    Thank you for such inspiring article. I know Fetle and I am so proud of her. She is hard working and dedicated. We all should learn from her to pursue our dreams and ambitions. Having an individual like her enriches the cultural awareness of the community and makes it easy for society to adapt and discover new culture, be it food or anything else.

    Thank you and thanks to Fetle.

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