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.