Cooking with Ethiopian and Eritrean Elders

By  Nikki Lewis, Seattle Tilth Intern

Interested in what’s cookin’ with Rainier Valley Eats? We have been hosting community meals each Thursday with the elders of the Ethiopian and Eritrean community for a month. Seattle Tilth along with the support of Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Food and Fitness lunch program, Horn of Africa Services, and community volunteers, are meeting with the senior community at the Yesler Community Center to create healthy and both locally inspired and African influenced food.

This week authentic Ethiopian dishes were the tasty highlights of the meal along with fresh produce, delectable fruit and a bucket of tangy tomatillos from Seattle Tilth’s very own Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands.  As always, familiar faces arrived early, ready to help with the cooking.  As the onions were chopped, cilantro diced, melons gutted, and tomatoes sliced, participants had a chance to indulge in delicious aspects of Ethiopian culture. Ganet Woldeyesus, a representative from Seattle Parks and Recreation, brought bags of orange lentils and a secret sauce containing a spice that can cure the common cold. Ganet, Habesha and Alem got to work on the lentil soup, hovering over a steaming cauldron, stirring what appeared to be some ancient remedy, allusive to the innate healing powers of food. Something magical was being created by these women.

With a little invitation, some of the men also washed their hands and took up knives to help in the kitchen. In Ethiopian culture, women traditionally perform the cooking, but times are changing. In this new community meal program, men as well as women are invited to practice their intuitive cooking skills. Everyone was enthusiastic and eager to participate in the process. In creating a fresh fruit salad, many women were able to taste their first pomegranates and persimmons. The reaction was a universal thumbs up! The community meal allows Rainier Valley Eats to introduce new whole foods and concepts about healthy eating. We hope to introduce a food distribution component to the lunches to help participants stretch their food dollars and continue fresh healthy eating into the rest of the week outside the meal program.

The community meal is a learning experience for everyone. Katie Pencke, Seattle Tilth’s Rainier Valley Eats program manager, encourages the group to create recipes together with the ingredients at hand.  Instead of tediously following specific orders, every participant has an active role in the creation of the meal, making the end result that much sweeter. On the menu: Mesir wat or Ethiopian red lentil puree, a fresh fruit salad and a sour tomatillo sauce, paired with authentic injera.  While Haile Yesus prepares coffee and tea, food is dished out on a long table, and the participants practice simple exercise routines. As the meal is served the smiles are infectious and the food to die for.

Michael Neguse, board member of the Horn of Africa and an active member in the Ethiopian and Eritrean community, often serves as a translator. While we ate the fruits of our labor in the typical Ethiopian style–using only your hands–Michael spoke to the crowd, who expressed their gratitude.

“They enjoy the food so much and appreciate everyone’s help.”  Michael translated, “And they wish to make the roasted vegetables next week, with brown rice!”  Everyone clapped in agreement.

The enjoyment that the seniors receive from the community meal is apparent. The meal creates an opportunity for senior Ethiopians and Eritreans to become more active in their community. Michael Neguse insisted that being able to bring them all together is simply wonderful and the smiles across the room reflected this. As the weeks have progressed, and faces have grown familiar, everyone has embraced the opportunity to try new foods they might not have otherwise. Everyone looks to Thursday in anticipation and it is our hope that Rainier Valley Eats will continue to have long relationships with this community

Seattle Tilth and Horn of Africa Services are currently recruiting from the meal program, as well as youth tutoring and multimedia programs in the community, to participate in a new East African farming project at the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands. We look forward to growing food and then cooking it with our local Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the coming year!