Ethiopia Enclave Feeds Body, Soul : Culture: On one block of L.A.'s Fairfax Avenue, immigrants can revel in their ancient African roots at a cluster of restaurants and shops.
Ethiopian coffee comes with a ritual. First, the unroasted beans must be brought to the table and presented to guests for their approval.
The beans are then roasted and returned to allow guests to pass on their aroma. Only after these two tests have been met are the beans ground and brewed. A sprig of rute, a mint-like herb, is placed in the cup, and the coffee comes to the table accompanied by burning incense.
This rite is performed dozens of times daily on one block of Fairfax Avenue where Ethiopia’s ancient culture is taking root with a cluster of restaurants and shops.
Five Ethiopian restaurants and a coffeehouse are concentrated in the block between Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive, along with a market, a travel agency and a shop that does silk screening.
The restaurants attract a steady base of Ethiopian diners and a good mix of Angelenos wanting to eat with their fingers as they sample yedoro wot (Ethiopia’s national dish of chicken and hard-boiled egg) gomen (collard greens) or tibs (beef). The food is served from a large platter shared by diners and picked up with injera (flat, spongy Ethiopian bread) rather than silverware.
“Eating with your hands, breaking the bread from one tray, means a lot,” said Rahel Woldmedhin, owner of Messob Restaurant. “If you eat from one plate--break the same bread together--that means sharing love, honesty and caring.”
Ethiopian dining includes an intimate custom called gursha , placing small portions in a relative’s or a lover’s mouth.
Civility is deeply ingrained in members of this community, so many of whom settled in this country during the civil war that raged in their homeland until three years ago. In the restaurants and coffeehouses, age is venerated, and young people would not think of remaining seated when an elder enters the room.
In the game room adjacent to the Blue Nile Restaurant, Abdul Ali, 31, sipped tea as several men gathered around a table used for c arambola, a form of billiards played without a cue stick.
“I love this block, even when I’m broke,” he said. “I can chill when I come here.”
Down the street at Nyala Restaurant, owner Mike G-Berhan said the merchants “are trying to make an Ethiopian community around this area. But we want people from everywhere to come. We didn’t open just for the Ethiopians.”
At Rosalind’s, the first Ethiopian restaurant on the block, USC engineering student Samuel Multa sat eating kitfo, very finely sliced and chopped raw sirloin seasoned with butter and spices.
“Within this one block, you can almost find anything you want--gifts, food, anything Ethiopian you can think of,” he said. “I come here for the food. I have a craving for my national dishes.”
So do many Americans.
“If you like spicy food, this is the place,” said Dina Fovos, 16, a Fairfax High School sophomore who was in Rosalind’s with a dozen relatives, celebrating her mother’s 50th birthday. “It clears your sinuses and it’s good for your blood.”
Between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on weekends, “about 80% of our clientele are white Americans,” said Fekere Gebre-Mariam, owner of Rosalind’s. “After 10 p.m., the Ethiopians come out. We like to eat late.”
Many Ethiopians regret that the only image most Americans have of their East African country comes from the searing television footage of skeletal children, with sunken eyes and distended abdomens, that shocked the world as famine swept their homeland a decade ago.
They proudly point out that Ethiopia’s written language goes back at least 1,500 years, making it older than any other in Africa aside from Egypt’s. Its royal dynasty traced its origin to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, an unbroken line until Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a Marxist coup in 1974. The Marxists ruled until 1991, when they were ousted by a coalition of rebel forces.
Ethiopia and Liberia are the only two African countries never colonized by Europeans, and Ethiopia became the first sub-Saharan African nation to defeat a European army when its troops repelled Italian invaders in 1896.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Fascist troops later invaded Ethiopia and occupied the country from 1935 to 1941, leaving behind an Ethiopian appetite for espresso, cappuccino and carambola.
Many Ethiopians who were abroad sought political asylum in various countries when the Marxists came to power with their repressive rule, said Gebre-Mariam, adding that he could not return home from the United States then. Now, wherever even two Ethiopians gather, the talk eventually turns to politics, he said.
“Outside of politics, Ethiopian people are very humble, very nice,” Gebre-Mariam said, smiling. “We respect and show hospitality to outsiders.”
The Los Angeles area is home to about 30,000 Ethiopians, whose jobs range from the professions to parking attendant. Many who were professionals in their homeland must drive taxis, wait tables or park cars to survive here.
The community is served by a newspaper and a magazine published in Amharic, the Ethiopian national language, and a 50-page Southern California business directory listing physicians, attorneys, tax consultants and computer companies.
Two Coptic Christian churches and two Pentecostal churches minister to Ethiopians, and the population is scattered throughout Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. But more and more the immigrants are making an imprint along Fairfax, which has become their cultural hub.
Gebre-Mariam, 41, is something of a godfather on Fairfax, the moving force who persuaded other Ethiopian merchants to relocate there. And they all applauded the move, even though the past few years have proved difficult.
Gebre-Mariam said Ethiopian restaurants in Washington also struggled to survive until eight or nine of them concentrated in two blocks along 18th Street in the northwest part of the city. Then they all prospered, he said, and he was convinced the same idea would work in Los Angeles.
He had moved Rosalind’s to Fairfax from La Cienega Boulevard in 1988, and he reasoned that “if we come together with foot traffic like in Washington, maybe we will prosper like Koreatown or Little Tokyo.”
Through his efforts the Blue Nile moved from Washington Boulevard and the Messob relocated from La Brea Avenue. The Nyala Restaurant opened in what had been an Italian restaurant.
They have since been joined by the Marathon Restaurant and Coffee House and the Chibo CoffeeHouse, whose bid to attract American customers includes offering Creole Cajun chicken and red beans and rice.
Gebre-Mariam also opened Merkato--a market specializing in Ethiopian food and spices, and African sculpture, jewelry, clothing, music and art--and later sold it.
“Now, instead of driving around, Ethiopians come here and park their cars,” he said. “They talk and they meet.”
And just as he had predicted, the concentration of businesses prospered--at least for the first few years. It was then hit with the twin blows of a sputtering California economy and the 1992 riots.
“Business is down 40% since the riot,” Gebre-Mariam said. But his determination to make the Ethiopian enclave on Fairfax successful prompted him to buy the Blue Nile when its owners closed it down a few years ago.
He also bought the Bagel delicatessen just to maintain the foot traffic on the block, but closed it last July as business continued to decline.
The block has nearly as many thrift shops as restaurants, and a few empty storefronts. Although several businesses have succumbed, the Ethiopian merchants say they are optimistic and will remain.
“The weekend crowds are returning,” said Gebre-Mariam, adding that Washington-based singer Mohammad Tewile drew the largest crowds ever to his restaurants earlier this month. “I think the economy has bottomed out. A lot of American customers have returned. If the last two weeks are any indication, we’ll all be doing better.”
Outside, three Ethiopians--drawn like so many others to the food, music and entertainment on Fairfax--stepped out of their car and were trying to decide which place to try first. Teferi Keberi struggled with the choices before deciding that the only sensible way to end the dilemma was to flip a coin.
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A Special Place The Ethiopian population of Los Angeles has claimed much ofa block of Fairfax Avenue, with five restaurants, a coffee-house and a market.