Ethiopia, March, 1981.
I keep thinking of how hard it must have been for Hiyaw’s mother. Her husband had been busy, tirelessly doing agriculture work for the Emperor and then the New Regime, and teaching them how to grow crops, and find fertile land. The government, who had made note of this, didn’t want him to help them, and so had promptly put his name on a death list.
When they realized they needed to escape, Hiyaw’s mother, who was 9 months pregnant, and her husband walked for 17 days into the desert, out of Ethiopia and into Djibouti, where she would give birth to Hiyaw, in a tent, with only a camel as their witness.
The name Hiyaw, (pronounced Hee-Ohw) means immortal. (It’s a heavy name to carry, Hiyaw has a tattoo, of his name etched permanently, immortally—if you want, on his left arm) but though he was born in Djibouti, Hiyaw ended up growing up in a Leftridge, Alberta, Canada, practically the only black person, and the only Ethiopian family in the neighborhood.
His dad, an interlectual, who was educated in Tel Aviv, tried to assimilate in the white suburbs of Canada. He drove a taxi; he sold vacuum cleaners. They worked hard and eventually got three restaurants in Toronto, but due to some bad luck, lost them, and then his mom, by herself, opened two more restaurants in Michigan, which are still going strong.
Hiyaw doesn’t know if it was a conscious thing to start selling the food he grew up with, but he thinks it was more instinct, probably. The moment of clarity was sitting in his parents restaurant in Michigan and seeing his dad cooking, and his mom trying to convince him to stay in Michigan and run the business and him arguing with them and saying they should “just package the food and sell it like that”, and when he went home that night, he couldn’t get the idea out of his mind.
Each of the 5 dishes from his packaged food menu have a rich memory attached to them. The Yellow Split Pea dish, for instance, reminds him of a scenario that happened when he was a child. His mother and his aunts would pick over the lentils and at the same time chat about their husbands, and their kids. It was hard work, but it was a time he remembers fondly.
And Hiyaw’s hard work has paid off; his packaged food has created buzz. He was highlighted in an article in Food and Wine magazine this last November, (Click here to see the article.) He was also approached by PBS to do a travel show within Africa, where he would go into the villages and see how the women are making their family’s food. BET has also contacted him, to expand “Task Ethiopia” to feed more people, and expose people to African cuisine, and there are a bunch of other things in the works.
His next goal is to create fusions, but not fusions within different cultures, like French and African. Hiyaw wants to create food fusions within Africa. Fusing South, East, West and North African food. The hardest part about being the first one to do the Ethiopian food-to-go thing, is there are no footsteps to follow. Although there are models for other businesses, such as Indian or Japanese, there are none so far for Ethiopian. Because of this, Hiyaw is always thinking that he has to do a good job so the world gets to taste and eat what he grew up with, and loves. But he needn’t worry. So far, his execution is flawless. Go out and pick up his food. It’s wonderful.
Taste of Ethiopia has currently 5 cuisines you can pick up in New York and eat at home: Misir (spicy red lentils), Kik (Yellow Split Peas), Gomen (Collard Greens), Yatikilt (cabbage and Carrots) Injera (Ethiopian Flat Bread)
Taste of Ethiopia products are available at Wholefoods , Fairway, Park Slope Food Coop, Westerly market, Union Market Brooklyn, Foragers City Grocer, Brooklyn Fare, and more.
To check out more about Chef and Owner Hiyaw Gebreyohannes Taste of Ethiopia, click here.