Bringing Ethiopian Cuisine to Mendocino County
by Jackie Cobbs
Ethiopian food tells a story about the land and its people. The ingredients reveal a narrative of climate, geography, and history. Even the way Ethiopian food is consumed expresses the culture. It’s not uncommon to see people break off a piece of injera, scoop up a choice bite, and feed it to a loved one. This practice is known as gursha and exemplifies how this is a culture of sharing and of community. Berbere, the principal spice mix used, blends Mediterranean, Indian, and Middle Eastern flavors, developed over centuries by the numerous historical trade routes through the region.
Colorful, spicy dollops of aromatically spiced, stewed vegetables called wat are served family-style on injera, a large sourdough flatbread that serves as both tangy plate and spoon for all meals. It’s made with fermented teff, a grain that grows in cool climates at elevations over 5,000 feet. Most areas of Ethiopia are perfectly suited to growing teff, especially near Addis Ababa, the capital city. Lying at the foot of Mount Entoto, its grassy foothills don’t often see temperatures that vary far from 72 degrees year-round.
Growing up in Ethiopia, Yusuf Heyi often helped his mother at her restaurant in their hometown, Asella. “I kind of taught myself how to cook, but I have the idea of how to cook from my mother.” Heyi studied psychology at Bahirdar University, then moved to the capital city of Addis Ababa, where he worked for the Peace Corps as a language and cross-culture coordinator, and also with Friends International as a child protection officer. He also worked in schools teaching English. “I love kids,” Heyi remarks. “They have a beautiful soul.”
Through Friends International, Heyi discovered his true passion of cooking. The organization takes in children from the street who are HIV positive, abused, and have no education. The program, funded by the Australian embassy, provides food, clothing, and shelter for the at-risk youth, and teaches them culinary skills. They learned from international chefs, creating small plates such as jalapeno poppers, samosas, goat kofte, and a watermelon and feta salad in the school’s restaurant, Bahir Zaf.
One of Heyi’s roles was to help find jobs for the kids after their training was complete. He often placed them in cooking positions in restaurants and hotels or helped them start their own businesses. Before long Heyi was inspired to pursue his own love of cooking.
Heyi moved to Ukiah from Ethiopia only 18 months ago to be with his wife, who grew up here. He first worked with Jaynene Johnson from Zocalo Collective, a catering company out of Willits, where he helped prepare meals. He enjoyed the work, deciding to branch out and create his own business, Tenadam Catering. “It means ‘Adam’s health,’” Heyi explained. “It [tenadam] is also a traditional spice in Ethiopian cooking. And I just like the name.”
Just 29, the young entrepreneur utilizes local, seasonal ingredients in his wats as much as possible, including vegetable such as beets, potatoes, lentils, chard, kale, and cabbage. He also offers meat choices of chicken, beef, and lamb. “My most popular dishes,” he confided, “are lentils and spicy beef.”
Creating a cuisine so far from its origins has both advantages and challenges. Teff is quite expensive in the U.S. compared to Ethiopia, and the fermentation that occurs while making the injera is affected by the different climate and altitude. Some spices have to be expensively shipped from overseas—though he admits he uses less when cooking for an American audience, as they can find the usual spice levels in Ethiopian food overwhelming. But Heyi appreciates the variety and availability of produce here, giving him more options and creative freedom in the kitchen.
Heyi’s catering company cooks for both private and public events. Last winter, he was often seen at farmers markets in Laytonville, Willits, Ukiah, and Fort Bragg. He took a hiatus this past summer to work the festival scene, including Sundays in the Park in Ukiah and First Fridays in Middletown. “I love music festivals,” he says. “You see a lot of people, there’s good music, good food, good vibes.” Heyi also likes working the farmers markets, and plans to return to them this winter. You can also find his dishes at the Ukiah Co-op for grab-and-go convenience.
Heyi’s current ambition is to attend a culinary school and focus on vegan cooking, with a long-term goal of starting a restaurant or food truck in Fort Bragg, Willits, or Ukiah. He’s also open to doing pop-up dinners when the opportunity arises. “I’d be happy to get some support from the community,” he said, “with maybe a partnership or funding.” Until then, he does all his cooking at the Willits Grange. They let him use the kitchen whenever he wants for a very low fee. “I really, really appreciate the Grange. It’s my backbone,” Heyi said enthusiastically. As long as it allows him to keeping cooking his nourishing comfort food, we appreciate it, too.
Email Yusuf Heyi at email@example.com or call 707-380-6734 for more info. Also follow him on facebook.com/tenadamcatering.
When Jackie Cobbs isn’t wrangling words, she is busy running after her two boys, Henry and Marshal, and helping her hubby, Kale, complete their cob home.