IF YOU NEVER THOUGHT you’d find Ethiopian food in Alaska – well, you’re right, more or less. Fairbanks had an Ethiopian restaurant for one glorious summer, but now it’s gone, a victim of the ruthless Alaskan winter. More on that in a moment.
Fortunately, our newest state (not so new any more, really) has a place where you can get an Ethiopian dinner once a week. And the chef is Ethiopian.
Every Thursday at J2 Fusion in Honolulu, Meron Girma Tsige cooks a variety of Ethiopian dishes and serves them to some grateful gourmands. Meron was raised in Addis Ababa, and her husband, Jim Spencer, who helps her at the Thursday night servings, is a New Yorker and a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. They call their enterprise Addis Ababa Hawaii.
Meron arrived in Hawaii in 2007 – Jim had taught there since 2002 – and she immediately dreamed of opening a restaurant. Like Alaska, Hawaii lacks culinary diversity in its restaurant scene: The state has many Asian restaurants and good European cuisine, “but beyond that it gets pretty thin fast,” Jim says. “There are no Ethiopian restaurants in the state, and only a handful of Habesha people at that.”
Jim introduced Meron to a colleague of his who was friends with Laos native Praseuth Luangkhot, better known as JJ, the owner of a popular restaurant that serves Thai/Lao cuisine and French pastries. Soon JJ bought a nearby restaurant and turned it into J2 Fusion, which serves mostly Thai/Vietnamese cuisine – and now, one night a week, Ethiopian.
JJ liked the idea of giving Ethiopian a try on Thursdays, and Jim and Meron launched their weekly restaurant in January 2011. They got 110 reservations their first night, “but we were quite inexperienced in the logistics and could only serve about 85 of them,” Jim says. The crowds were still good but more manageable in subsequent weeks. Jim turned to his network of friends and colleagues to initiate Addis Ababa Hawaii, and on a recent evening, they had 55 reservations, none of them solicited.
“The price for this full meal is $25 per person, and is VERY large and filling,” Meron wrote on Yelp, the restaurant review website. “You could eat it for a couple of days afterward, so it is a pretty good deal if you take a doggie bag.” If business remains brisk, and if the couple can raise the capital, “I think that Meron would like to open a full restaurant,” Jim says. They get their teff and berbere from American markets and suppliers, and Meron even makes Ethiopian food at home for Jim and their son, Yohannes, a couple of times a week.
As for Fairbanks: You gotta give the guy props for trying.
Alex Antohin, a great-great-grandson of Ethiopia’s last emperor, opened Tekul in June 2007, a few months after graduating with a degree in sociology from the University of Fairbanks. He did it to honor his Ethiopian heritage and the food he grew up loving, but also as an experiment to bring some culinary diversity to a place with almost none.
Born in Virginia, Alex grew up mostly in Fairbanks, where his Russian-born father is a professor of theater at the university, and his Ethiopian-born mother, a great-granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie, is a teacher and anthropologist. He named his restaurant for a kind of traditional Ethiopian thatched-roof hut, his maternal culture’s version of a yurt – that is, an Alaskan native home made of a cloth tent, draped in the shape of a dome over a framework constructed from tree branches. Tekul is the Tigrinya word for the Ethiopian hut; in Amharic, it’s called a gojo.
So to fit his restaurant’s Ethiopian name, Alex ran his restaurant out of a yurt: You ordered at one window and picked up your food at another. Inside, he did the cooking, although he says the climate made it impossible for him to get his injera batter to ferment. I tell more of Alex’s story in my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.
Tekul served meals for three months, and then Alex closed it for the winter and left for Ethiopia. Alas, with nobody around to brush the snow off its roof now and then, Tekul’s yurt collapsed under the white weight. When Alex moved on to new adventures in the Lower 48, he said he hoped to open another Ethiopian restaurant some day in his hometown. But on Oct. 18, 2015, four days after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident on a freeway in San Diego, where he lived and worked, Alex died at the age of 29.
University of Pittsburgh