By Colleen O’Connor |

(The Denver Post) – At 8 a.m. Saturday morning, a volunteer team of Ethiopian cooks will gather in a commercial kitchen to make eight dishes traditional to their East African culture, enough to feed about 2,500 people.

Surrounded by mounds of ingredients — including 300 pounds of onions, 300 pounds of beef, and 400 chicken drumsticks — they’ll cook throughout the day and into the evening.

“We want everything to be fresh,” said Sophia Belew, who heads the cooking team for the Taste of Ethiopia, which takes place Sunday. “It tastes as close as possible to what we eat at home.”

Crowds at the Taste of Ethiopia in Denver rapidly multiplied each year since it started, back in 2013, and this year a new global audience gets a chance to try such classic dishes as doro wot, chicken stew, and tibs key wot, beef stew with red chili pepper.

For the first time, the Taste of Ethiopia will host the most American of ceremonies, and immigrants from 18 countries — ranging from Nepal and Bulgaria to Guatemala and China — will take the oath of allegiance and become U.S. citizens.

“It makes me feel so warm-hearted that people are taking an interest in our culture,” said Menna Tarekegne, 13. “More people are accepting it, and wanting to learn more about our food, our culture, and how we live life.”

On a recent afternoon, a group from the Ethiopian community gathered for a traditional three-cup coffee ceremony, which will also be part of the upcoming festival.

Sosena Dagne roasted coffee beans in a pan over a hot flame, then ground the beans, and made a strong, rich coffee. Coffea arabica — the coffee species savored by most of the world’s population — originated in Ethiopia, and the coffee ceremony is centuries old.

“In Ethiopia, you never make coffee just by yourself,” said Dagne. “Our parents, our neighbors, would gather together and talk about their lives, the kids, and their everyday problems. Drinking coffee has a lot of meaning, and the most valued thing is discussion.”

These pieces of Ethiopian culture are eagerly shared by people like Dagne, who came up with the idea for a festival celebrating her native country, which is located in the Horn of Africa. After emigrating to the United States, she noticed that many cultures had festivals celebrating their heritage, like Cinco de Mayo and the Denver Greek Festival.

“One day I was talking to friends and said, ‘We have to have a big festival,'” said Dagne.

They jumped into action and the first year, so many people showed up at Taste of Ethiopia that they quickly ran through 1,000 pieces of injera, the spongy flatbread that is used like a utensil to scoop up each morsel of food.

“I was totally surprised,” said Dagne.

But the time was right, particularly for American culture, where the popularity of Ethiopian food has been driven by a variety of factors, including Ethiopian-born celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and changing American tastes.

“I remember one time when I was in middle school, one girl said Ethiopian food ‘tasted weird,”‘ said Blaine Tarekegne, 16. “But now people say they love it, and it’s got something for everyone — meat lovers, vegetarians and vegans.”

Ethiopian food features lots of meat dishes — beef, lamb, and chicken — plus vegetarian favorites like tikil gomen, a mix of potato, carrots, and cabbage spiced with curry, and abseha gomen, collard greens with garlic and ginger.

Because Ethiopia has a large population of Orthodox Christians, their cuisine includes meals made without animal products traditionally served during religious fasts, which are popular with vegans.

And then there’s teff, the ancient grain — about the size of a poppy seed, with a nutty flavor — that’s been a staple of Ethiopian cooking for millennia. Packed with nutrients like protein and calcium, it’s now showing up in upscale restaurants like Nocturne, where chef Dustin Beckner used it in his African Grain Risotto. The latest issue of “Food & Nutrition” magazine recommends the new book “Teff Love: Adventures in Vegan Ethiopian Cooking” by Kittee Berns.

Metro Denver now has about 20 Ethiopian restaurants and four Ethiopian markets, but the growing popularity of the food still takes some adjustment for people Belew, who moved to Denver in 1995.

“When I talk to my colleagues about Ethiopian food, more people know about it,” she said. “One woman said, ‘I’ve been to nine restaurants, and there’s a lot of vegan options.’ That always surprises me, because we don’t have a fast-food chain.”

Taste of Ethiopia, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 2

Free admission. Parkfield Lake Park, 15555 E. 53rd Ave.

Source: The Denver Post

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