Home cooking

Oct 26th, 2009 | By | Category: Student Work


OAKLAND — Tirsit Ali, 39, is carefully tying a bow through the waistband of a faded white apron she has just pulled over her head. She approaches a deep sink and peers down to examine a heaping pile of purple onions, ripe tomatoes, and crisp jalapeno peppers still glistening from the faucet’s bath.

Tirsit Ali, 39, owner of Messob restaurant in North Oakland

Tirsit Ali, 39, owner of Messob restaurant in North Oakland

“Even when I was a little one, I loved to cook,” she recalls.

Ali’s earliest culinary memories date back to 1980 when, at the age of 10, she began helping her mother and other female relatives peel and cut onions at their home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. The dish they prepared most often then was Shiro Wot, a stew of ground chickpea, onion, and garlic that is a staple dish for Ethiopia’s 75 million people.

Thirty years later, Tirsit (TUR-see) is still making Shiro Wot. Only now it is at her own restaurant, Messob, which she opened in north Oakland in 2005 and named after the traditional Ethiopian circular straw table designed for communal eating.

Ali came to the United States with her Ethiopian husband in 1991 when she was just 21 years old. They left Ethiopia during the period of political turmoil that precipitated the end of Communist rule in that country.

From the beginning, Ali says, America felt like home.

“I liked everything. It’s a huge country. Very clean,” she says, her warm smile exposing two rows of small, yellowed teeth of a size and color rarely seen in an American city with modern dentistry and adequate nutrition.

But Ali soon discovered many differences between Ethiopia and America, especially how people interact.

“In Ethiopia you gather together every day, eat with your family and friends,” Ali recalls. She feels America is missing this strong sense of community.

“Here, it’s all hard work, everyone is always busy. People meet each other less.”

Ali entered the American workforce as a maid for Sheraton Hotels. Soon after, she took a job preparing and serving food at an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley. It was in that kitchen that she began planning for the day when she would have a business of her own.

Living in Addis Ababa, Ali remembers few if any businesses run by women. “It was dominated by men then,” she says.

Today, however, Ali feels conditions in both countries have improved. “Women own not just restaurants but other businesses now. I think it is more equal.”

In 2000, confident and eager, Ali formed a business partnership with another Ethiopian family friend. With financial backing from Ali’s husband, they opened a small Ethiopian coffee shop on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. But without the necessary kitchen facilities, they could not get the food license required by the city to prepare and serve their traditional meals.

A year later, when an established Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland came on the market, they jumped at the chance to buy it. After four years learning the restaurant business with her friend, Ali left the partnership to open her own restaurant, Messob.

Today, Ali handles the finances and ordering decisions, and still prepares most dishes herself. “It’s been difficult,” says Ali. “You have to work hard, you have to get things together. But you also need help.”

Luckily Ali has the support of her husband, her young son, and a large network of family and friends in the Bay Area’s Ethiopian community. Many of these people she knows from her years in Ethiopia, others she met here in California.

Her small staff is made entirely of Ethiopian women.  Some wait tables in the evenings, working only for tips.

“They have other jobs but they come here to help me out,” Ali explains.

Growing up in the comparatively urban environment of Addis Ababa, Ali’s middle-class family did not work in agriculture. Instead, they bought most of their food from a local market. But Ali recalls a small backyard garden where her mother grew beautiful collard greens and jalapeño peppers – two of her favorite vegetables.

With Messob, Ali strives to prepare dishes the traditional way, as she remembers from her mother’s kitchen. She has meat delivered two or three times a week and shops for produce at the farmer’s market at Jack London Square. She only buys enough fresh cabbage, potatoes, carrots and collard greens to last a few days.

Still, she misses the fresh Ethiopian produce she remembers from her youth.

“They have everything here, but the taste is different,” she says. “In Ethiopia it’s more a natural thing. They don’t use anything to make it grow fast. Don’t put anything in the ground. So it’s more delicious. Seriously.”

According to Ali, it is the unique spice flavor combinations such as shiro, mitmita and berbere — a hot and spicy blend of red chili pepper, ginger, cloves, coriander, garlic, and salt – that make Ethiopian cuisine so special.

Interestingly, many of the key ingredients on which the signature Ethiopian dishes depend come in the form of dried powders, products that are more dependable in a nation with poor distribution networks.

Ali’s Shiro Wot, for example, is never made from fresh chickpeas but instead from Shiro powder, a ground, dried version that is far less perishable. The same is true for many of Ethiopia’s spices, lentils, and grains, which makes shipping to overseas distributors in America more feasible.

For Ali, the biggest challenge in running a restaurant is the long hours, especially because she chooses to do most of the cooking herself.

“I work very hard, cooking all day,” she says. “Three, four hours for just one stew. American food is easy. To make a burger, it’s just ten minutes.”

The famous Ethiopian bread, injera, takes three days to prepare.

Traditionally, injera is made almost exclusively from teff, a small, nutrient-rich grain that has been one of Ethiopia’s staple crops for centuries. But as teff has become more expensive to import – a 25-pound bag that used to cost $22 dollars now costs $55 dollars – most Ethiopian restaurants in America, including Messob, have started substituting corn meal in place of it.

Once prepared, the injera dough is left unrefrigerated overnight so that it can set and ferment slightly, which gives it its sour flavor. On day two, the dough is placed in a refrigerator for 12-24 hours. On the third day, the mixture is cooked over a stove top on a large round surface resembling a pancake griddle. After 90 seconds on the griddle the injera is removed and allowed to cool to room temperature before being served.

“It looks like a pancake but it’s different,” Ali explains. “People here call it the spongy bread.”

Teff is not the only Ethiopian food commodity to experience inflated prices.  Ali’s friends back home, most of whom she has not seen in 20 years, tell her that most food prices there are on the rise. She says the biggest sacrifice in Ethiopians’ diet has been meat. Historically a key component of middle-class Ethiopian cuisine, meat is now too expensive for many families to afford on a regular basis.

According to Ali, the cost of food ingredients in the Unites States have also increased in recent years. Still, she has chosen not to raise her prices.  Ali charges $6.95 for Shiro Wat and $9.95 for Doro Tibs, a dish of boneless marinated chicken sautéed with onions, jalapeno, garlic, and rosemary. Her prices are between $1-2 less on average than comparable Ethiopian restaurants in the area.

Ali says it is better to suffer a drop in profits than increase her prices and risk losing customers. “It’s not a good time in America, too. Many people have no work.”

But times at the restaurant are equally tough and Ali is making just enough money to stay in business. Over the course of three hours one afternoon, only three patrons, an Ethiopian couple and a young white man, come in to the restaurant for lunch.

Ali acknowledges that eat-in business is slow, but says her restaurant serves a steady take-out dinner clientele of Piedmont locals. And on the weekend, she says, crowds of Ethiopians pack into the small restaurant after church services for the large shared family meals traditional in her culture.

“Friday, Saturday, Sunday this place is full of Ethiopians.”

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