Kristine M. Kierzek
Solomon Bekele and Mulu Habtesilssie know challenges. They know resilience.
When the husband and wife first opened Alem Ethiopian Village in 2008, it was in the midst of economic recession. They were the only business on their block at the time, and they quickly built a following for their buffets and vegan meals.
Now, the restaurant, at 307 E. Wisconsin Ave., has shifted to takeout and curbside only, paring down the menu considerably, with Habtesilssie and Bekele handling the cooking. Current hours are 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and orders are being taken only by phone at (414) 224-5324.
Solomon: My mom, she passed away in 2005. Her dream was to open a restaurant. We continued that momentum, that idea forward. We came across this space downtown that was vacant forever. It is a nice place in the middle of downtown to open a restaurant. The name is for her, that is her first name, Alem. We opened to memorialize her life and her desire.
The recipes are all my wife’s. My wife, Mulu, and I opened the restaurant, and she’s the one doing all the work in the kitchen.
Ethiopian food and your cooking
Solomon: Ethiopian food is really unique. For one, you eat it with your hands. You use your fingers to dig in. Two, we use injera, like a flat bread which is not really bread, but soft like a tortilla. That’s what you use to scoop up the food, which is mostly stew type food. You put that on the bread and tear off a piece to scoop up the food and put it in your mouth. We have a variety of veggies and meat based foods. There is no pork, but a lot of beef, lamb and chicken.
Family and food
Mulu: I learned to cook when I was really young, because in Ethiopia you don’t just sit and eat. You have to watch your mom cooking next to you. You season, you watch what they’re tasting, and that is how you learn. I have known to cook since I was 8 years old. I learned from my grandma, mom and my next-door neighbors. Next-door neighbors are like family where I grew up, and that’s how you learn.
Mulu’s must eats
Mulu: I would like to be known for vegan cooking, which a lot of people right now are choosing. I like cooking the vegan dishes. I mostly eat vegan myself.
Ingredient she can’t live without
Mulu: There is no Ethiopian cooking without garlic, ginger and cardamom. The black cardamom from Ethiopia, it is very strong, very good, and not like you find other places.
Mulu: We have a supplier form Minneapolis, a spice company, and we get things from there. One or two things we get from Ethiopia, because it is just not the same here. In Minneapolis there’s Workinesh Spice, that provides many spices.
Solomon: They cater mostly to Ethiopian restaurants and businesses.
Solomon: We have limited our menu so much, drastically. We (now) make mostly quick foods, so when people call in we can get them right away. We don’t have the labor intensive menu items right now, like some of the combinations and platters.
Mulu: They take a lot of time to cook.
Solomon: It is really just her and I in the restaurant during takeout hours. It is not easy to find staff that can cook Ethiopian food around here, the population is not a lot.
What defines their kitchen
Mulu: If you cook a stew, you have to know the smell, the taste. It is not the same as if I give you the recipe. Your cooking and mine is different. It is not about the recipe. When food is ready, you can tell by smell. You can tell by taste. You don’t get the same thing between two people cooking it. If you don’t have the experience, you will have a hard time getting it right. We don’t do measurements. We’ve never had measuring cups.
Meals with memories
Mulu: When I think of my family, I think of doro wat, with the chicken. We always make that at the holidays.
Solomon: That’s all day cooking in Ethiopia, only on holidays. The chicken is prepared for major family gatherings and it is not as quick as we do it here. It is a big deal back there.
Mulu: Doro wat takes half a day to cook back there.
Why they cook for others
Solomon: We think of this as teaching about Ethiopia and showing what we love. A lot of people don’t know about Ethiopia. There are people who have never heard of it, don’t know where it is. It is like a teaching arrangement with food, showing our background. Once people try our food, they keep coming back.
Biggest challenge in running a restaurant
Solomon: Staff. Our food is really labor intensive. It is not something you can microwave and serve.
Mulu: It is all from scratch.
Their everyday eats
Solomon: We don’t always eat Ethiopian. Sometimes I just like a deli sandwich.
Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected].
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