Eating the World

An Ethiopian Market Thrives in the Heart of Phoenix

Bati Bazaar is a small store, but it's full of activity. Fassil Yunka perches behind his counter, and he can’t talk for more than a minute before the phone rings. When he picks up the receiver, he alternates between English and Amharic, the most popular Ethiopian language.

Customers push in and out the door. They ask about spices. They browse the coffee sets. They pile their clothes in the corner, where an elder man sits at a sewing machine. The store is long and narrow, with the rhythm of a Brooklyn bodega.

“People come in and say, ‘Oh, man, you bring a lot of memories back to me,’” says Yunka. “The smell, all the different variety of spices. There is a fusion of scent and environment that brings a lot of homesickness – and satisfaction.”

Bati is located in a strip mall along an unremarkable stretch of McDowell Road. You could easily drive by and never spot it. But for the Valley's Ethiopian community, Bati is a touchstone. This is a place where immigrants can find long-lost products, hard-to-find ingredients, and a merchant who intimately knows their culture.

“I have cookies, they call them Abu Walad,” says Yunka. “Everybody grew up on these. It’s the Oreo of Africa. Every grownup buys it when they see it.”

Yunka opened Bati Bazaar with his mother in April 2010. In only six years, Bati has become more than a little ethnic shop: Customers can get their clothes mended, wire money to relatives in East Africa, and even participate in the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

“The plan was to get started with a community shop,” recalls Yunka. “When we started, it looked like a joke. We only had a couple of shelves to start. But the idea, from the beginning, was to serve anything the [Ethiopian] community needs, in their own way and their own language.”

Yunka is a fetching and fashionable 33-year-old, and his accent is subtle. It is hard to believe he lived his first decade in Ethiopia, then spent his teenage years in Amsterdam, where he learned fluent Dutch. His parents are Ethiopian and Eritrean, so he grew up with a range of cultural influences. When his family moved to the United States, Yunka tried to start a small business in an Atlanta shopping mall. The business fell apart, thanks to the 2008 economic crisis, and Yunka struggled to find a new project.

Opportunity struck: Yunka’s mother was living in Phoenix, where she worked at the airport’s duty-free shop. She wanted to open her own store, but she needed her son’s help. Yunka liked the idea and moved to Phoenix, where he immediately set to work. He landed a job at Giant Coffee and also started driving a cab at night. It took only six months to secure a location, and as soon as Bati opened, customers started calling Yunka’s cell phone, eager to buy the Ethiopian imports they had long missed.

“I was doing anything I could to survive the first two years,” he says.

“Bati” is the name of a famous marketplace in Ethiopia. The original bazaar is enormous, attracting up to 20,000 people every Monday. Bati also has cultural significance: The market is common ground for a number of diverse tribes, where people who rarely cross paths in daily life can mingle among the stalls. Yunka’s store serves much the same purpose.

Bati is also an oasis for ambitious cooks. Lots of Americans try their hand at exotic dishes like ceviche and coconut curry, but Ethiopian cuisine poses special challenges. The Ethiopian trademark is injera, a spongy flatbread that looks like a giant crepe. Injera is already hard to make, taking up to three days to prepare the dough. But authentic injera also requires a grain called teff. When teff recently became a popular superfood, the Ethiopian government banned exports, fearing a rise in domestic prices.

“It was crazy,” Yunka chuckles. “A 25-lb. bag could cost $75.”

Ethiopia is understandably protective of its agriculture, ever since the nation endured mass starvation in the 1980s. While the government has permitted the export of teff once more, foodies would also struggle to find berbere, a complex blend of spices that appears in all kinds of Ethiopian dishes. Berbere incorporates such diverse elements as cumin, garlic, coriander, and fenugreek, among others.

“You cannot make berbere,” Yunka says, laughing off the idea.

In the largely overlooked world of ethnic emporia, Yunka sees his main competitors as Somali and Arab shopkeepers, who sell similar wares. To keep up, Yunka and his mother hope to open a butcher shop in the back, expand their selection of gourmet coffees, and even provide meals for takeout. Yunka has no plans to move into a larger storefront, but he hopes to keep renovating the limited space that he has.

“We’re not rich, but we get a lot of satisfaction,” says Yunka. “It’s definitely a dream come true.”

For more information about Bati Bazaar, visit the store’s Facebook page.