Chow Bella

The Immigration Issue: Nourishing Phoenix With a Dish of East African Culture

Pablo Robles
Eyasu Zegeye and his wife, Azeb Getahun, own Abyssinia Restaurant and Café in Phoenix.

This article is part of Phoenix New Times' issue focusing on immigrants in the Valley of the Sun. See our full coverage here.

Long before they were married and opened a restaurant together, Eyasu offered to help Azeb learn to drive. She was already paying for private lessons, but Eyasu insisted. He was a limo driver, after all. Why pay a stranger when she could learn from Eyasu for free?

Eyasu and Azeb didn’t know each other well. They met through their mothers, who were both born in Ethiopia and had become neighbors in the same apartment complex in Phoenix. Both mothers were housewives and recent arrivals in the United States, and both of their children had come to join them. Eyasu was driving a car, and Azeb was working as a caregiver for children with disabilities.

Azeb took driving lessons from Eyasu, and when they started talking, they realized that they had grown up only a couple of miles from each other in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. They attended the same church, they went to the same school, and they even knew some of the same people.

“How come I didn’t know you back then?” Eyasu recalls thinking.

Today, Eyasu Zegeye and Azeb Getahun own Abyssinia Restaurant and Café, one of the Valley’s handful of Ethiopian restaurants. Abyssinia is a modest operation, seating a maximum of 30 customers. The eatery is tucked into a strip mall on Indian School Road; it would be easy to drive past this busy intersection without ever spotting the sign. But in only two years, Abyssinia has become one of the touchstones of local Ethiopian culture. If you want to learn what life is like in this East African nation, Abyssinia is a good place to start.

“The simple goal is to introduce Ethiopian culture and food to the greater Phoenix area,” says Zegeye, a vibrant 40-year-old with a receding hairline and confident grin. “This was my wife’s dream for years. We strive to serve our customers in a very honest way. If we mean gluten-free, it must be gluten-free, without any backdoor recipe. Sometimes it’s not about money. It’s about satisfaction and fulfillment.”

Zegeye is friendly and polite, but he’s also intense. He speaks in precise English, enunciating every syllable. His mother moved to Arizona about 15 years ago, and he followed in her footsteps. For a solid decade, Zegeye has learned the ins and outs of Phoenix, perfecting his English and immersing himself in the Ethiopian community.

Abyssinia is geared toward casual diners, with simple menus and furniture. But every decoration has cultural significance. Each table has its own mesob, a tall woven basket that traditional Ethiopians use for a place setting. Two containers hang from leather cords; they’re made of cowhide, and Zegeye describes them as “Ethiopian lunch boxes.” In the middle of one wall, a large picture shows Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s longtime emperor and Rastafarian prophet. Every item is a conversation piece, a window into the poorly understood republic.

“Ethiopian culture and food are not being introduced [to Phoenicians] as they need to be,” Zegeye says. “The culture, the music, the dancing — we have to introduce that.”

Zegeye estimates that about 3,000 Ethiopians live in Phoenix. But unlike some other cities, there is no Ethiopian neighborhood, per se. Nowhere in the streets of Tempe or Scottsdale can you find a row of signs in Amharic, the dominant language in Ethiopia. The local diaspora is spread far and wide, as are their businesses. Fassil Yunka owns Bati Bazaar, a little shop near the Phoenix fairgrounds. Six miles from there, Kelen Firdawoke Demeke owns the restaurant Gojo. Two miles farther, Aisha Tedros serves coffee at her small café, A.T. Oasis. In Tempe, far from any of these places, stands Café Lalibela, the most successful Ethiopian eatery in the Valley.

So where do Ethiopians congregate? A large number meet at church. Ethiopia is a famously Christian country, with houses of worship dating back to the Middle Ages. In Glendale, El-Bethel serves evangelicals. In South Phoenix, St. Marys is geared toward the Orthodox community. In each place, services are performed in Amharic, and immigrants have a chance to socialize in their own language.

But there’s another way that Ethiopians find each other: through their food. Ethiopian cuisine is like none other in the world. The staple is injera, a spongy bread that doubles as an eating utensil. To make injera, you need a special grain called teff, which is pricey and hard to find. Then there is berbere, a hopelessly complicated mix of spices. Most Ethiopian entrees take days to prepare. Each concoction is piled onto a single sheet of injera and eaten as a group. Ethiopian cuisine accepts no imitations; you’ll never find wat (stew) or tibs (sautéed dishes) in an airport food court. In a way, this resistance to change helps keep the community intact.

“The majority of our ingredients are imported directly from Ethiopia,” Zegeye says. “Ethiopian food is not something that you put on your [own] plate and eat. You open up your plate to everybody.”

In conversation, Zegeye seems to have two different personalities: First, there is the devout born-again Christian, who grew up poor in Addis Ababa and never forgot his roots. In the U.S., he co-founded Hope for Children Ethiopia, a nonprofit that helps African youths escape child labor and sex slavery. He sells homemade scarves from the restaurant to help fund the cause.

But Zegeye is also a shrewd businessman. He wants Abyssinia to thrive, and he wants to add other locations. He and Getahun hope to serve Ethiopian wine and beer, and they want to showcase dance and music that are virtually unknown in the U.S. Despite all his successes so far, Zegeye still drives people around for Uber. He has strong feelings about the African experience in America, and he speaks with a rare candor.

“Ethiopian. Black. Foreigner.” He ticks these off on his fingers. “When you are in a workplace, you have to be twice as smart, twice the hard worker as a white, male co-worker. The burden of proof on us is so much higher. On top of that, the supervision and the workplace drama and the language barrier is too hard for us. The only way to get your independence is to drive a taxi, or a drive a limo, or drive an Uber. That’s the only way you can work on your own terms, without being boxed in. I know a couple of friends who have engineering degrees, but they still drive taxis.”

There is another way that many Ethiopians assert their own identity: the coffee ceremony. Back in the homeland, the ceremony is a daily routine. Families gather in their houses to burn incense, say prayers, and brew some of the finest coffee in the world.

“In Ethiopia, coffee is beyond a drink,” Zegeye says. “It is a way of life. In every household, you’re going to have that ceremony at least three times a day. It’s not mandatory; it’s just in our system. Housewives and mothers invite each other into their houses. You wash the coffee on site. You grind it in the traditional way. You brew it in a clay pot. You have very small, specifically designed coffee cups.”

He considers this. “Even now, I smell the coffee, and I crave it.”