Abyssinia brings traditional Ethiopian food to Phoenix

Lifestyle | 16 Jan, 2019 |

When Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe owner Azeb Getahun was a little girl in Ethiopia, she would watch her mother, Agebus Dubai, cook traditional meals in a kitchen with no electricity in the home they shared with her brother and her sister. As Getahun grew taller, her mother started to teach her to make dishes such as doro wat and yebeg tibs, hand-over-hand and with a lot of love, she said.

“She cook, and she teach me,” Getahun said.

Eventually, her mother would just watch and when she thought Getahun was doing something wrong, she would slap her hands and tell Getahun how to do it properly.

Getahun is all grown up now and the owner of Abyssinia, which is located in a remarkably multinational pocket of Phoenix, a city of inconspicuous diversity. As much as she has learned to cook, though, Getahun said her food will never taste as good as her mom’s — her “best friend,” and “a teacher.”

The first in the family to leave Ethiopia was Getahun’s brother, who came to Phoenix to go to school. He eventually married and had a child. Her mother left in 2000 to be with them.

When Getahun came to the United States in 2008, she had been separated from her mother for eight years. In the summer of 2015, she opened Abyssinia, a traditional Ethiopian restaurant and café that is also her piece of the American Dream.

Ahead of each new day in the business, she closes her eyes, puts her hands together and prays.

“All day I give for God,” Getahun said.

There, she cooks her mother’s traditional Ethiopian recipes and serves as an ambassador of her culture to people who don’t know much about it. The restaurant is also a safe haven for refugees from all over Africa and a second home to other Ethiopians.

According to the Pew Research Center, there are 222,000 Ethiopians in the United States, making it the country’s second largest population of African migrants. Some of them come here as refugees and others come as Getahun did, following family already settled in the country.

Danny Musa Hansen, who works with the International Rescue Committee, an organization that aids asylum seekers and immigrants while they are adjusting to life in Arizona, often picks up new arrivals from the airport and prepares their living spaces.

“If they have U.S. ties, I contact them,” Hansen said. “I take them to the airport to greet.”

Hansen is himself a refugee, from Rwanda. He has found a home in Phoenix and wants to help other refugees do the same. After they have settled into their new homes, Hansen helps them apply for food stamps, Social Security benefits and health care.

For years, the United States has been a top destination for international migrants. But that may soon change. President Trump limited the number of refugee admissions to 30,000 for the fiscal year 2019. That is 15,000 fewer than in fiscal year 2018, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.

African countries are capped at 11,000 refugees; the cap was 19,000 in 2018, according to Politifact.

These migrants, immigrants and refugees alike, contribute to Phoenix’s economy. Hansen used to work at the IRC department called Economic Community Development. He said he has helped them open 200 to 300 business in Phoenix alone — from Syrian sweet shops to driving schools, Henna stands at First Fridays and restaurants, including Getahun’s Abyssinia.

“We train them how the business is done, and we help with their registration and paperwork,” he said, and that they help them find a location “based on the demand of the customers.”

Getahun and her husband found the location for their restaurant on the northwest corner of Indian School Road and 9th Street and told the folks at IRC, who provided them with a low-interest loan to help them get started.

“They have been so supportive,” Getahun said.

When customers first walk into Abyssinia, they see a small dining space illuminated by blue and red string lights. The air is filled with the smell of berbere, which is a mixture of chili peppers, ginger, basil, koraima, rue, ajwain and najella. Dishes clink and clack in the bustling kitchen as four cooks prepare the orders. The walls are adorned with Ethiopian memorabilia, such as a poster that reads “All hail HJM,” a reference to Haile Selassie, a former emperor of Ethiopia.

In the back left corner of the restaurant is a room that is used for traditional Ethiopian dining. There are seven knee-height tables where families and friends can gather, sitting on booths, chairs or the floor, depending on their preference.

“This is girls’ handcraft,” Eyasu Zegeye, Getahun’s husband, said about the traditional tables that are made from a strong grass. “Girls and mothers, they sit down at home together.”

Guests eat and drink from a shared plate, scooping the food with injera, a spongey flatbread that is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine.

“We sit in a circle and eat all together as family, all the family,” Getahun said, her voice rising over that of a man crooning in alto over the speakers.

Getahun’s first language is Amharic, which is spoken in most major cities and towns in Ethiopia, including the capital, Addis Ababa, where she grew up. For the first year after her arrival in the United States, she took English classes Monday through Friday at Rio Salado College.

She said the first word she learned was “water.” However, she said the most bizarre phrase she had to learn was “nice to meet you too.”

“There is no equivalent in Ethiopia,” she explained. Then, she started to laugh. She looked at her husband, and he started to laugh too. Before long, they were laughing so hard they both had tears coming out of their eyes.

Getahun said she recognizes that her English isn’t as fluid as she wants it to be: “Every day, I wish more perfect.”

“Here, English language is life,” she said.

For about five years, she worked as a caregiver in a group home for senior citizens — “People take care of people,” she said in still-imperfect English. She noticed, though, that while Phoenix is a big city, there weren’t many Ethiopian restaurants, certainly not as many as one would see in cities like Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and Atlanta, each with its own large Ethiopian community.

Getahun told her brother, who had moved to Phoenix before her mother came: “God has blessed me and one day I open a restaurant or coffee shop.”

And one day she did. On a sunny day in July, Abyssinia opened its doors across from Island Sensation cuisine and in between Sage Beauty Supply store and an empty storefront that is now for lease.

Technically, the restaurant opens at 10 a.m. on weekdays. Getahun does not rush, though. She opens when the restaurant is ready. And before she opens, she goes to the stores to get fresh ingredients for the day.

She prays when she enters Abyssinia because she is grateful for the opportunity to have her own restaurant. Then, she cleans every last inch.

Once the doors are open, the kitchen starts to warm.

Anytime a new customer walks through the door, Getahun recommends the Agelagel. “It has a bit of everything,” she said. And by “everything” she means vegetarian lentils and meat tibs, such as lamb.

Getahun married her husband and her biggest cheerleader Eyasu Zegeye seven years ago. However, their story begins long before then. They attended the same Protestant Sunday school. He was just a couple years ahead of her.

Though they had always known about each other, it wasn’t until she came to Phoenix that they reconnected. Zegeye was already living here.

Their mothers had lived in the same apartment complex in Ethiopia, so when Getahun came to the United States and wanted to learn how to drive, her mother connected her with Zegeye’s mother. It was Zegeye who agreed to teach her and after a few months, he thought, “You’re meant to be my wife.”

He is almost always at the restaurant, helping her do this and that. When a customer walks up to him and asks if he is the manager, he smiles, turns to Getahun, who is usually looking over her notes and paperwork, and says, “That would be my wife.”

Getahun goes to Ethiopia Community Church every Saturday and Sunday morning. On those days, she opens the restaurant at noon.

“Church is my life,” she said. “I pray. Every day, I read Bible. It is very important to me.”

As she explained this, a woman popped out of the kitchen, waving her arms at the plumes of smoke rising from a frying pan. She gave a little laugh and walked over to Getahun as the smoke died down.

The woman held the pan a couple feet from Getahun’s face. Getahun cupped her hands, directing the smell of the dish toward her nose. She breathed in deeply. “Coffee beans,” she said. “Traditional Ethiopian coffee beans.”

The woman then took the frying pan to four Ethiopians sitting in the traditional room and let them smell it.

The woman was Getahun’s sister, Tigest, who helps in the kitchen when she isn’t tending to her children.

Hansen said that once immigrants are settled into their new life in Phoenix, they seek out places that remind them of home — places just like Abyssinia.

“It’s a great place for refugees,” Hansen said. “Everybody knows that place.”

Keduse Peieke, 47, goes to Abyssinia almost every single day. He moved from Ethiopa to the United States about 16 years ago.

“Listen to the music,” he said, nodding his head to the beat. “Takes you home.”

He said his favorite Ethiopian dish is Kitfo, a minced raw beef marinated in a chili powder spice blend.

Peieke said his favorite thing about Abyssinia is the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

On a recent afternoon, Peieke, Getahun, Zegeye and a couple others huddled around the traditional Ethiopian tables with six tiny porcelain cups. On this day, Getahun was roasting the coffee beans, not her sister.

After the beans are finished roasting in the frying pan and the smoke dies down, Getahun disappears into the kitchen and comes out with a traditional coffee pot and warm cream in a metallic container. The sugar is in a smaller container beside it.

Getahun poured the coffee into each cup from over a foot above them. Then, she dropped a scoop of sugar into one of the cups and handed it to her husband.

“The man of the house gets served first,” Zegeye explained.

Getahun continued to prepare coffee with different amounts of sugar or cream for each customer. She knows their preference.

Peieke took a sip of the bitter drink and closed his eyes.

They spoke in Amharic while sipping their coffee. Peieke passed his phone around to show them a young relative back in Ethiopia.

“It’s one of the attractions, to remember home,” Peieke said.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons