The first time I met Assefa Kebede I was with a group of friends from northern California who were in Vancouver visiting their parents. They went to the Nyala Ethiopian Restaurant every time they were in town; it was in my neighbourhood and I’d never been. Ten of us arrived at the restaurant door on a summery Saturday afternoon in the early 1990’s. A beautiful black man with a shining round face and stunning white smile was just locking up.
He opened the door and we said, “Oh, are you closing?”
He looked at us and said in a lilting African accent, “Well, I was just about to head off to Seattle to see a soccer game, but – ¦” he paused, “I would rather cook for you.”
And cook he did. It was a feast. We were there for several hours savouring it all, including his famous coffee ceremony. And that was my first encounter with Assefa, a warm, generous, smart, community-minded Ethiopian Canadian who also happens to be a great cook!
I remember thinking back then that “Ethiopian restaurant” was a bit of an oxymoron. The terrible drought and resulting famine in the 1980’s with the pictures of emaciated children were still burning in my mind. (In fact, there has been chronic famine there since the 1970’s and it continues today.) Ethiopia did not seem like a land of plenty nor a place of delicious recipes. I was wrong. I got hooked on Ethiopian food and became a frequent visitor to the restaurant, introducing many friends and family to it.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure of eating Ethiopian food, let me introduce you. First of all the food arrives on a large platter, on it sits a very large round crepe-looking thing, called Injera, bread made from their staple grain called teff. It is spongy and tastes a bit like our sour dough. On top of the Injera sits your meal, in little dollops. At the Nyala, there’s always a little potatoe salad and pickled beets to complement your main courses and a basket of Injera.
Assefa used to scold me for ordering the same things every time, but I loved two of the dishes so much that I couldn’t help myself. Gomen Watt was chopped greens, spinach mostly, cooked in vegetable oil with onions and green peppers. The Yeshimbera Asa was chick pea flour cakes stewed in traditional, spicy hot berbere sauce flavoured with onions, garlic and ginger root. You are meant to tear off pieces of bread to scoop up the food. Eventually you eat the entire “plate” which by the end of the meal has the juices of the entrees soaked into it. A warning, the Injera kind of blows up inside you, so try to curb your enthusiasm for it. I have never managed to do so and always leave there full beyond belief.
I once had lunch at Assefa’s home after a tour of his garden. Both his front and back yard are in full production. He grows apple, pear, plum, and fig trees. He has grapes and currants, blueberries and a herb garden. And as if that weren’t enough to tend, he also grew herbs out the back of the restaurant. He experimented with growing teff at his property in the valley too, which was not overly successful he tells me. Too wet here.
The restaurant had grown out of his passion for growing food. Assefa studied Agricultural Sciences at UBC and was cooking for family and friends then. In 1986 he had a booth at the Folk Festival and opened a restaurant a few years later.
For lunch that day, he cooked up a banquet of Ethiopian dishes complete with Injera. But then there was a whole other Morroccan stream: tabouleh, homous, pita bread. I was stuffed and he kept saying, “Eat, eat.”
“You’re just like my Grama,” I said laughing, trying to fit a little more in.
“Cheesecake for dessert,” he said. Feeding people was part of who he was.
Feeding people is part of who Ethiopians are. I once took a friend to the Nyala. She looks like a bit of a helpless waif, even though she isn’t. She frequently evokes a mothering response in people. When the waitress (Assefa’s wife I believe) found out it was her first time there, she tore off a piece of Injera from our meal and was about to feed her like a little bird. When she saw our shocked faces, her hand froze in the air, half way to my friend’s now open mouth.
At one time, Assefa was selling an Ethiopian cookbook out of the restaurant. He had helped a friend with funding for it. My brother also loved the cooking there and bought the book. But when he went out shopping for the spices he would need, he discovered the recipes called for village size quantities. Assefa blends all of his own spices himself to make the unique berber sauce.
Over the years, Assefa and I struck up a friendship. He was always quick to donate a gift certificate when I needed prizes for one of my various ventures. He was also a regular at Seedy Saturday events, providing delicious food. His interest in seed saving went back to a visit by a fellow Ethiopian, Ato Hailu Getu who was with the Seeds of Survival (SOS) program, launched in Ethiopia in 1989 by the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada (USCC). The program brought together scientists from the Ethiopian Gene Bank working to improve local strains and farmers with traditional knowledge. Assefa also graciously accepted to be one of the chefs when we had our celebrity chef cob oven cooking event at the compost garden where I worked at the time.
I met Assefa for coffee recently. He had moved his restaurant to a new location on Main Street, driven out by the high rents in our neighbourhood. The tough economic times weren’t helping either. And it seems all these years later there is still a stigma to “Ethiopian”. A newspaper poll quoted a woman saying that she didn’t like “Ethiopian” food for many of the reasons I was first resistant. Assefa now calls his place Nyala African Cuisine to avoid any lingering doubts. His web site says “We serve a diverse variety of food from many parts of Africa including Ethiopia, Morocco and South Africa using fresh ingredients found locally in Vancouver.”
The Nyala has been feeding Vancouver for the past twenty years. If you haven’t been yet, I urge you to try it. You won’t be sorry. Assefa’s a potter too and you will see his traditional “tagines” (casserole dishes) and other pieces on display. Yes they’re for sale. Oh, he’s also a beekeeper and he sells the darling little pots of honey too – honey and pots both lovingly made by him. Best of all, you will have the chance to meet and be fed by my friend Assefa.
Excerpt from, Something’s Rotten in Compost City, A Plot to Take Over the Food You Eat, by Spring Gillard.