In Sunol, a farmer grows the flavors of Ethiopia

Aug 10, 2016

For over 20 years, Menkir Tamrat has grown Ethiopian vegetables and herbs he couldn’t find anywhere else in the Bay.

At his farm in Sunol, Menkir walks down a row of bright green pepper plants to a shady arbor in back and points out peppers along the way.

“[For] the mitmita peppers the closest thing would be like a bird eye chili like you would find in a Thai restaurant,” Menkir explains. “Then you go to the berbere peppers. It's bigger. It's longer. It's more like a little bit bigger than a jalapeno, more pointed and curved. And it's probably slightly milder than the jalapeno.”   

Green berbere pepper

The rows of peppers are all green now, but soon they’ll ripen to a vibrant red. Then Menkir will dry them, crush them, and make them into spice blends essential to Ethiopian cuisine. 

“I started adding these layers and layers of flavor to come up with this powder. Imagine, there's the berbere, the chili, first. And then 12 or 11 plus additions of seasonings and spices and herbs” Mekir says. “The balance of heat and color that also interweaves with the aromatics and the herbs that go in it. So it's a sum of all these different things.” 

A taste of home

Menkir wasn’t always a farmer. He grew up in the countryside of Ethiopia in the 60’s. He watched farmers working in the fields and then selling their vegetables at the market. 

In the early 1980s, Menkir came to the Bay Area, got his MBA, and started a career in tech. The food from his homeland was never far from his heart. But when he tried to recreate it with local California ingredients, something was missing.

“I couldn't create the chili powder from off the shelf chilies” Menkir says. “It's a hit and miss, how do you know which one might be the closest? But based on some of the criteria it wasn't coming through, so I started growing it.” 

Menkir went to Ethiopia and brought back the seeds he needed to start a garden.  At his home in Fremont, he filled his yard with Ethiopian herbs and vegetables and peppers - the fresh flavors that made all the difference.  

For decades, Menkir’s garden was just a passion project. But when his tech company downsized in 2009, Menkir took the opportunity to grow these Ethiopian flavors on a larger scale. He connected with Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol. And by that summer he had 5,000 pepper plants taking root in California soil.  

Menkir at Baia Nicchia Farm

Once he had a steady supply of the proper peppers, Menkir poured over books, articles and recipes searching for the perfect spice blend. But when he started mixing flavors together, he realized he was missing a major secret ingredient: the mom touch.

“Ethiopian cuisine is like so-and-so's mom is known for her such-and-such. And she may have one little secret thing that she adds in it” Menkir describes. “So you never get the same thing from two families making the same stew; (it) would not taste the same.” 

So Menkir turned to his mother’s friend who lived in Oakland, and he’d follow his mother-in-law around the kitchen with a notebook when she came to visit from Ethiopia. 

“They kind of have a sense of feel. The good chefs don't measure anything” continues Menkir. “So it's sort of that culture, no matter what they do they say 'Their hand delivers tasty food.' So you just try to follow. And then you become the documenter.” 

Today, Menkir sells his spices through his company Timeless Harvest. His recipes are still evolving, but he’s feeling pretty confident these days.

“I even took some samples to a restaurant in Ethiopia just to show off” Menkir brags. “And said 'Why don't you guys taste this?' in a place where they specialize in these things. And the lady just could not believe it that I brought this from America and a man made it.”

Menkir collaborates with Finfiné restaurant in Berkeley on Telegraph Ave, a little restaurant tucked away in back of a quiet courtyard, with no more than a dozen tables and a bar. Menkir supplies them with spices and a traditional honey wine called tej.

Dinner at Finfiné

Sharing vegetables and ideas

Menkir is very passionate about the history of Ethiopian food. He can chronicle centuries of invaders and cultural exchanges, and the effects of religion and class on the cuisine. He uses food to tap into a greater narrative about Ethiopia’s place in the world. 

And now, he’s going back to where his own journey started. 

This season, Menkir reduced his operations in California, and spent half of the year in Ethiopia where he’s diving into an exciting new project. He’s starting a farm that grows American and European crops for high-end restaurants in the capital, Addis Ababa. 

“Last week we made the first sale” Menkir says proudly. “And of all of that the Tuscan kale became the big hit. There was other things like swiss chard and arugula.”

Menkir strives to cross-pollinate ideas as well as vegetables. 

“For example, I am installing a drip irrigation system for the vegetables,” he explains. “That's common here, but not as much over there. So that makes me feel like I'm introducing not just a different vegetable that they may not have seen, but also a way of conserving resources and efficiency in a small scale. 

It may seem like Menkir is being drawn back to Ethiopia with this new project, but after decades in America, he feels deeply rooted in both countries.

“I am fortunate enough to say that I have two countries. But there's also a responsibility that comes with that” Menkir explains. “I don't have to choose one over the other. They're both special to me in their own ways. Different opportunities are provided by the two different places. I think more people should have two different countries. More than one anyways.”