|Menkir Tamrat's backyard garden in Fremont showcases the diversity of the crops of his Ethiopian homeland. Tamrat also has a plot at the Sunol AgPark. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle / SF|
Whoever we are, wherever we're from, we're a
ll exiles, if only from that foreign place, the past. Hunger is part of that experience - not for calories, necessarily, but for tastes. It could be a delicious but unshippable fruit you miss, a wild herb or a fish that must be fresh out of the Gulf of Mexico or the Mekong. Through history, displaced peo
ples have re-created the foodways of their lost homelands in diaspora communities, starting with seeds or tubers that make it through the filters of distance and hardship. It's still happening, in places like Ethiopian-born Menkir Tamrat's Fremont backyard.
Tamrat's garden showcases the diversity of Ethiopian crops. His homeland may have been one of nine places where agriculture was independently invented, thousands of years ago. In early fall, the garden blazes with red mitmita peppers that give the raw-beef dish kitfo its fire. There's besobila, sacred basil, an essential ingredient in the seasoning mix called berbere ("the backbone of the sauces"); gesho, a flavoring agent in tej (honey wine); and assorted culinary herbs and greens. A grass called tej sar resembles lemongrass but is used as soap. The leaves of the endod vine contain a chemical that kills the aquatic snails that spread bilharzia, a chronic disease widespread in developing countries.
|A ripe mitmita pepper. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle / SF|
Near Wheatland in the Sacramento Valley, he's also growing teff, the endemic grain from which injera, Ethiopian flatbread, is made.
Or should be. Tamrat says most Ethiopian restaurants in the Bay Area use mixtures of wheat, barley and sorghum for their injera. "There are more than 2,000 varieties of teff," he explained. "White teff is revered; growers brag about who has the whitest teff. But a few things were thrown overboard when we crossed the ocean, and one of the first was white teff. The quality of injera was sacrificed." During the Mengistu regime (1974-91), teff exports were restricted and the grain could only be obtained in the black market, via neighboring Djibouti. For a long time, there were no American growers. The traditional preparation is also labor-intensive. Tamrat's dream is to have teff injera as the standard. "It nags at me when I go to a restaurant and can't have it," he said. "It's not the full experience without it."
An added bonus: Teff is gluten-free and might be attractive to a wider market, beyond the Bay Area's estimated 40,000-strong Ethiopian community. Tamrat hopes his sales operation, Timeless Harvest, can tap into it. Other products for potential e-commerce include berbere and other spice mixes and, further down the road, seeds for home gardeners.
Beyond teff and peppers, he's experimenting with Ethiopian collards and kales, collectively called gomen; his seeds come from Ethiopia and from a seed bank at Washington State University. "The scientists want the naming details," he said. "We just want the good taste." He can't grow those year-round in the South Bay, so he's negotiating with a retiring farmer for land on the foggy San Mateo County coast, where the climate is more like the Ethiopian highlands.
He's also speculating about a special barley that's used to brew tela, a beer-like fermented drink. Tamrat's own tej brand, Yamatt, is already available in some Berkeley and Oakland restaurants and stores.
|Shiro, a mix of legumes, will be ground into powder. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle / SF|
Tamrat also supplies mitmita powder and shiro, a legume-based powder, to Finfiné, an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley. Owner/chef Charlie Zawde calls the mixes "completely different, with unbelievable flavor." Zawde, who uses all-organic ingredients, pairs the mitmita with ahi tuna and wild salmon. His supplies used to come from Ethiopia, but it was hard to get the quantities he needed and ensure consistent quality. Some batches of mitmita were too hot for the American palate. "The quality of Menkir's product makes a big difference," he said.
"The cuisine needs work to become sustainable in a foreign land, without waiting for the boat to come in," Tamrat said. "You have to have these things available when you need them. When I was younger, I used to call my mother and get recipes, get stuff shipped." She's deceased, though, like many of her generation, and Tamrat and other carriers of culinary tradition need to become self-sufficient. "It's tough for first-generation immigrants to think they're really immigrants, not just visitors," he reflected.