Ethiopian Christians are righteously proud of their relationship to the religion, stretching back to the first century AD. Of all the Oriental Orthodox branches, theirs is the largest…and arguably, the spiciest. Every year, the Mekane Selam Medanialm Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral in East Oakland celebrates the story of how the “True Cross” came to Ethiopia.
Inside the church, big screens project the verses the priests are singing, for the congregants to follow along, in the ancient language of Ge’ez, as well as English. Paintings of Jesus and Mary adorn the walls. Some look decidedly European, others East African. Women, dressed in white linen wrap dresses called habesha libs, bow their heads, kneel and prostrate themselves on the carpets laid on the ground.
This day, the church is hosting a capacity crowd of 500 people, because this is Meskel, one of the biggest holidays on the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar. As with many religious congregations, the numbers of “casual” visitors swell on days like these, and the church is ready to throw a big welcoming party.
While the service goes on upstairs, downstairs in the kitchen, a dozen women prepare lunch. To raise money for the church they sell prepared meals once a month and on special holidays. Wearing crinkly plastic gloves, they chop beef into bite-sized pieces, building a mountain of meat on the counter.
Mulu Reda of San Pablo explains that once this is all chopped, it’ll be marinated in a spice mix.
“We call it awaze,” she says.” The base includes olive oil, salt and Ethiopian honey wine.
Recipes for awaze vary widely, something that’s true for recipes in general in Ethiopia, where cooking traditions are handed down in the home from mother to daughter. Many cooks mix in berbere, itself a spice mixture including garlic, ginger, pepper — and at least one spice Reda brought herself from the markets of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.
She holds up a massive plastic bag filled with fabulously fragrant coriander.
“This is so concentrated!” she says, pulling a handful from the bag. “Taste it. Tastes good.” Then she proceeds to grind it, fresh, for the kitfo, ground beef served raw, mixed with clarified butter — and a spice mix that includes birds eye chili peppers so hot they numb your lips.
There will also be tibis, cubes of beef marinated in rosemary, garlic, onion and jalepeño pepper the women will fry up outside in the parking lot to order when lunch is served.
At another counter, women chop up tomatoes for a salad, and on the stove, different pots hold red lentils and collard greens, each simmering with garlic, olive oil, onions and jalepeño peppers, too. The smells are exciting, and the atmosphere is bubbly. Pretty soon, somebody starts singing hymns and the rest of the women join in as they chop.
Zee Mekonnen takes a little coffee break to talk with me. She fled Ethiopia for Oakland 17 years ago, after her husband was killed in a political conflict. Mekonnen had to raise three children all by herself in a new country. Here, she finds community.
“I’m so happy when, every Sunday, ooooh, I can’t wait!” she exclaims and laughs. “We meet friends here, get together, and you know?” She sings in the church choir, in addition to volunteering in the kitchen.
Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country, stretching back to pre-colonial days, and the varieties of Christianity they practice are distinctively East African. Even Meskel is unique to Ethiopia. Back in the fourth century, Saint Helena is said to have set out to the Holy Land, looking for the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified, the “True Cross.”
Like the recipes, the stories explaining Meskel vary, but a fair summation might be Saint Helena had a dream in which she was told to burn incense and watch where the smoke curled to hit the ground. She did so, and found the True Cross, or Meskel, and she brought it back to Ethiopia. Later today, after the feast, the priests will say prayers around a bundle of pine branches topped with sunflowers and set it on fire in a ceremonial reenactment of the story.
But first, lunch. After four hours in church, people are hungry. They line up in the parking lot to enjoy the kitfo, tibs, red lentils, collard greens, tomato salad, and a homemade fresh cheese called ayeb. Made from buttermilk, it tastes a lot like a dry cottage cheese. Everything is scooped up with injera, a spongy bread made with brown teff, barley, and wheat. Its tang beautifully complements the stewed meats and vegetables of Ethiopian cooking.
But if the grown-ups are thrilling to the traditional food on offer, the menu reveals concessions to the influence of American cuisine on the children. The kids down cheese pizza, hot dogs and soda before heading for the bouncy house. Their elders seem to accept it with bemused resignation, while they sip fresh brewed coffee and eat popcorn (as it’s done in Ethiopia these days).
Solomon Obolu, a science professor at Cal State East Bay and Laney College, brings his children here on weekends. His ex-wife moved to Davis, where there’s no Ethiopian Orthodox church. He could drive to the church in Sacramento, but this is the church that feels like home to his son and daughter.
“You know, they have their cousins here,” he says. “They play here. It’s a nice community.”
2010 US Census figures shows nearly 4,000 Ethiopians have established themselves in Alameda County over the last four decades, but some suspect the true numbers are much larger. Rebecca Lakew of the Ethiopian Cultural Community Center in Oakland believes many Ethiopians may be marking off “black” or “African American” on census forms. Whatever the exact numbers, the Ethiopian community is also growing in Santa Clara County, especially in and around San Jose.
Mekane Selam Medanialm Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral draws people from all over the region, from as far away as Davis. Church officials say they’ve bought land to build a bigger church, big enough to accommodate 1,000 people, and an expanded Sunday school for the children, where they can learn the religion and language of their parents.
As the sun sets, the priests go round the fabric-wrapped branches, stretching ten feet high. The men wave crosses and chant prayers. iPhones light up across the parking lot. The bishop set the branches on fire, thick smoke billows up and people begin to dance and sing in joyous celebration. It looks like Burning Man: the Ethiopian version.
Here is a small selection of Ethiopian Restaurants in the Bay Area, reflecting how widely the community has established itself beyond Oakland — and how expansive Ethiopian-American cuisine has become. Naturally, you’ll have recommendations to add. Please feel free to provide them in the comments section.