Until arriving in the U.S. in 2013, Tigist Tesfaw, 51, was an attorney in Ethiopia and ran a large social service agency for survivors of gender-based violence. Despite the demands of her job she always found time to cook for her family and friends. She can’t share the circumstances that made her flee Ethiopia for fear of endangering her relatives. Today she regularly prepares Ethiopian meals for her husband and children, as well as other immigrants, refugees, and asylees at the Marjorie Kovler Center in Rogers Park. She also continues to work with survivors of gender violence as a shelter advocate at Apna Ghar in Uptown. She dreams of starting an Ethiopian restaurant with affordable prices and a brunch menu.
In Ethiopia most of the household activities are laid on the mom, the woman, and as a first child and as a girl I’m supposed to cook a lot. Since I’m eight or nine years old I was involved in a lot of cooking, baking. The simplest was shiro wot. The texture is like a paste when it’s cooked, but it’s simple, you can make it in a few minutes. It’s prepared from chickpea and yellow pea grains, and then we spice it, and then we make the powder. Every household has that powder, every household in Ethiopia—you can find it both in a rich house and in the poorest house.
I had a big single-family house with three bedrooms, kitchen, service quarters, outside in my home city, Hawassa, the capital of the south region. I was the executive director of the agency I established, serving women and children. I was really busy when I was there—too much responsibilities as a director. I used to work day and night, I didn’t have enough time for sleep. In the meantime I wanted to take care of my family, I would like to participate in the kitchen, I didn’t want to be far away from my kitchen.
Here, you don’t have anyone other than family to help with the kitchen, even to wash dishes. So I’m running to work, then when I’m coming back there is social life, so I’m busy always. I am cooking more here. Here the interaction with the people, it’s most of the time related with food, so if someone calls me for dinner or something, I want to bring something, I cook.
Most Ethiopian people don’t survive without injera. I have a sister who’s living in San Jose—when she goes back home she brings injera in the freezer. We have another way: injera chips. Back home they will dry it under the sun and then they make it in pieces. My mom always sends me that and then we make some sauce and mix it with that sauce. It will become like fresh injera, it soaks in the sauce.
Some stores around the Broadway area are having the injera, but it’s totally different. It has little bubbly eyes, and the texture looks right, but if you are Ethiopian and you know the real injera you can tell. Whenever we meet with Ethiopians that is the discussion. The problem is the flour. I don’t know what’s going on with it. I was the expert back home, I was cooking very nice injera, perfect injera, but here it’s strange.
There are little changes from home. I try to adjust. I discovered the American all-purpose seasoning powder. I found that is the perfect ingredient for samosas. Here the butter is different. American butter doesn’t have taste. You can smell our butter. Actually, we melt the butter, we put some spices, and then when it’s settled you separate the spices and melted butter and then it has a very nice flavor. With American butter it has no taste, even if you put similar spices.
I have three kids, my older son is back home and my two younger kids are here. My young son is 17 and my daughter is 22. They want to learn, to try the American food but I don’t want them to go to junk food like McDonald’s. They asked me to show them KFC—I took them like twice and then they stopped. They love Indian food. I cook the Indian rice biryani. Since I love to cook here I don’t go to many restaurants. I don’t really like Ethiopian restaurants, I can make the best one here, so why should I go there? All my friends know my house, everybody comes to my house, I like to invite people for lunch.
Two years back, I started at Apna Ghar, my current job. We have a cooking group every other Thursday with the clients. Most of the time we enjoy Indian and Pakistani meals—I learn their food. Because we have similar spices, similar flavors, Indian and Pakistani food makes sense for Ethiopians, and Ethiopians make more sense for them.
Mostly I go to the Devon Avenue stores. For meat there is one store on Broadway, a German butcher shop, if I would like to make kitfo. It’s tartare—very fine chopped meat with spices. Otherwise I go to Shan Grocery on Sheridan and Winona. It’s a Pakistani, Indian, and Ethiopian store, that’s also one of my favorite places for meat. Beef is very common, and we love lamb. Chicken is the most respectful. We don’t do like you guys here—the whole chicken which is sold at Jewel-Osco, roast chicken—that’s not really common. Our way it’s for the big holidays like New Year, Easter, and Christmas. It’s common, but it’s special.
I love the cooking group [at the Kovler Center]. Sometimes more than 30 people come, 40 people. It’s kind of an interesting interaction between the people—men and women are working together, everybody is participating, it was impressing for me. I’ve had Rwandan, Indian, Ethiopian, Philippines, Irish, Chinese . . . If it’s Thanksgiving we cook the turkey and other side dishes. I love Thanksgiving. From all the American holidays, I’m really happy to be part of the Thanksgiving because we have to be thankful for something, for our life. I’m really impressed with Thanksgiving. But I’m not really that much interested for the food. I don’t like turkey, I don’t know how people like it. I tried it—mild, no spice. I learned the mashed potato, but it’s not that much flavor, even my kids they don’t like it.
I wish to have an Ethiopian restaurant but I don’t want it to be just like the Ethiopian restaurants existing right now. I have a lot of friends, Americans or from different countries, and when we are talking about the food they’re telling me, “I love Ethiopian food! I wish I could go to restaurants, but I couldn’t afford it because it’s very expensive.” I’m thinking: How could I make a small price and nice food? I haven’t seen Ethiopian brunch food here, but we do have a lot of food that can be a brunch. We have kita firfir or chechebsa, made from bread and flavored butter. It’s a very nice, filling food, and it could be for brunch. And we also cook eggs in different ways.
Here people are drinking coffee in the morning just to wake up, but not for us. We drink coffee at night. I don’t do the coffee every day, but if I want to have real coffee I want to start from scratch. I roast [the beans]. The coffee ceremony is very important back home—it was always during the night, when families gather together. It is a process. It’s a kind of discussion space. Most of the women don’t work outside, they don’t make money, so the neighborhood women are gathering together, discussing common issues, problems, finding the solutions. It’s really a very interesting and sweet thing. We enjoy the friendship, the affection, drinking the coffee, being together, talking, and telling stories. v