Anna Mindess

At Café Colucci on Telegraph Avenue, when you dip injera, a sourdough-risen flatbread, into pungent, deftly seasoned creamy lentils, collard greens or chopped beef, you are dipping into thousands of years of Ethiopian culinary history.

“Sheltered in isolation, Ethiopian culinary art flourished autonomously for centuries,” writes restaurant owner Fetlework Tefferi in her book Ethiopian Pepper and Spice. “Farmer families have entrusted the seeds of their crops as well as ancient cultivation processes from father to son, while family spice blending from mother to daughter for generations on end.”

In order to ensure that the dozens of indigenous spices and herbs used in her beloved Oakland restaurant retain their authentic flavor, Tefferi has been passionately supporting the local farmers and dairywomen of Modjo, Ethiopia since 2009.

Berbere, a blend of more than twelve spices and the heart of Ethiopian cuisine, takes two weeks to make from scratch. Photo: Anna Mindess

Berbere, a blend of more than twelve spices and the heart of Ethiopian cuisine, takes two weeks to make from scratch. Photo: Anna Mindess

Several times a year, Tefferi travels to her native land, where a majority of the population is still farming and much of the land has not yet been exposed to the chemicals that would burn the earth. Her goal: to help local farmers thrive using their traditional agricultural methods by ensuring they receive training in everything from irrigation to recycling.

Tefferi tries to enlist the aid of local agronomists to show farmers how to install drip-irrigation systems so they can grow more crops — instead of just waiting for the rainy season. She also supplies stainless steel pots so that women (the traditional dairy farmers) can still make butter by hand, but more efficiently than with traditional clay pots.

Encouraging them to help her fill the growing demand for authentic Ethiopian spices and other food products not only benefits the farmers, Café Colucci’s diners, and the customers of her online spice store, Brundo, it completes a cultural circle that connects Tefferi to her homeland.

When she was still a teenager, Tefferi’s parents decided it would be best to send her to the U.S. to live, considering the situation in Ethiopia at the time. Her mother, who stayed in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, gave Tefferi a precious package to begin her new life in Michigan: five plastic bags sealed with wax, containing the five most important spice blends that bestow on Ethiopian food its characteristic intensity and flavor.

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