Courage, resilience and a really spicy shiro
Story by Renu Chandarana
It begins in Ethiopia in 2006, when political violence following the 2005 general election saw government forces killing hundreds and detaining tens of thousands in Addis Ababa. Aster, a single mother, packed up her two toddlers and fled for Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia sought asylum.
Things were bleak in Nairobi as jobs were scarce within walking distance of the camps at which they were forced to live and Kenyan law prevented refugees from owning businesses. But with two mouths to feed, and humanitarian aid arriving in a feeble trickle, Aster got creative. She made friends, paid bribes and navigated a system designed to see her fail. Nevertheless, Aster opened a small restaurant serving Ethiopian, Eritrean and East African food, which kept her sons fed and clothed for the next 17 years.
Back at EthniCity, flames lick the sides of three pans teetering on commercial burners. One boils dried split chickpeas, another red lentils, and one sizzles the onion, garlic, tomato base for the shiro — a flavour-packed, polenta-like porridge made from chickpea flour. Aster’s confidence radiates. Her colleagues in the kitchen make way as she reaches for another bowl, another chopping board, another knife. She hands me zip-top sandwich bags filled with spice blends; I open the one for the shiro, chickpea flour blended with wildly delicious-smelling garlic powder, turmeric and cayenne pepper, and I taste it. I suck the air through my teeth to cool my tongue and she laughs, saying she brought it with her from Kenya and keeps it in the freezer at her sister’s house, using it sparingly to preserve the flavours of home.
While Aster’s curries simmer, orders for burgers, fries and other North American diner favourites fly in around her. The poutine and wings are a far cry from the traditional doro wat and gomen she served in Nairobi, but Aster’s not fazed – in fact, she’s thrilled to be here, in this Canadian kitchen, building a new life for herself and her kids.
As drought and war brought hundreds of thousands of new asylum-seekers from Sudan into Nairobi in 2022, the situation was worsening for refugees. Aster wanted a better life for her now-grown sons. So, she followed in her sister’s footsteps and fled to Canada, leaving her restaurant in the hands of a trusted friend.
Undeterred by frigid February temperatures when she arrived in the winter of 2023, Aster set to work on creating her new life in Calgary. She found herself under the wing of the Centre for Newcomers (CFN) and its social enterprise, EthniCity Catering and Café. This training program supports highly-barriered newcomers and refugees by offering classroom and kitchen training. Students prepare and sell food for the catering and café business and the revenue generated supports CFN operations. The program accepts 64 students in four cohorts per year. All students receive a food-handling certificate and help seeking employment. Partially funded by the government, EthniCity generated $300,000 for the CFN operating budget in 2022/23. The program is so successful that a large new commercial kitchen is set to open in 2023.
Today, though, Aster is working handily in the original kitchen. Just like in Nairobi, she is a one-woman show. Washing, rinsing and boiling lentils. Peeling, chopping and sautéing onions, garlic, and ginger. She makes five vegetarian Ethiopian stews, aterkeke (split chickpeas), misrekeke (red lentils), shiro (chickpea flour), gomen (kale) and key sir alicha (beets with potatoes and carrots). Each will be dished out on top of injera bread. The whole platter is known as beyaynetu.
As injera is fermented, it must be prepared in advance, so I’m sent on a mission to retrieve some from a small, pan-African shop that sells the pancake-like bread made from a fermented batter of teff and whole-wheat flours. Armed with a pack of five, I return to the café and Aster is ready to plate the stews. She lays one round injera on the platter and spoons out each of the curries, carefully dolloping each one in two different places on the injera so we won’t have to reach over each other while eating.
As we devour the delicious stews, I’m present to the power of traditional recipes in not only connecting people to home, but also to each other. We’re two women from opposite sides of the globe with drastically different life stories. Yet, here we are, talking about food, motherhood, business, her hopes for her life in Canada… and sitting across a gorgeous plate of food, I can taste it for her.