Tucked away in the corner of Bay 8 of the mammoth American Steel warehouse sits the Ethiopian spice shop, Brundo. Barely visible from the street, the empty back of a papasan chair adorned with a Brundo apron marks the entrance for customers. But the intoxicating smells of onions, allspice, and simmering meat are a much more potent identifier for this hidden West Oakland gem.
Brundo is a project of the well-known North Oakland Ethiopian eatery, Cafe Colucci. Founder Fetlework Teferi grew her successful restaurant into an adjoining spice shop when local wholesale spice vendors proved inconsistent. Using the connections in her close-knit community, Fetlework partnered with farmers in Ethiopia to produce spices expressly for the restaurant, “so that we ourselves can watch the integrity of what we are using in our food,” Lea Berhane, Brundo’s Director of Marketing and Business Development, explains. “It is true farm-to-table.”
When her ambitions outgrew her Telegraph locale, Fetlework moved Brundo’s headquarters to American Steel Studios. She has authored a self-published spice book, opened an online spice store, and is in the process of getting Fair Trade and organic certifications for the source farm in Ethiopia, which employs 31 people. Brundo has been offering Ethiopian cooking classes out of the West Oakland location for over 3 years now.
Twice a week, Brundo offers cooking classes, both vegan and traditional options, with a sit-down meal to follow. For 3 hours, I learned about the basic spices, ingredients, and cooking techniques to create Atakilt, Doro Alicha, and Sega Wot dishes–not a bad way to start a Saturday.
Led by Adey Abeba, we began with all of our prep work: chopping cabbage, potatoes, and carrots. The most arduous task was finely mincing red onions through our tears. Eventually we just threw our onion bits in the food processor. Adey explained that it’s important to cut the onions so finely because the water from the fine particles allows cooks to brown the onions without oil.
Once we chopped up some chicken and beef, we heated up our pans and threw the onions in. Mine quickly browned and started to leave a brown residue on the pot. Using some water, I deglazed the pot and the purple onions were now a bubbly brown goop. We continued to add water and veggies to make the Atakilt dish.
“There is no wrong way to make these dishes!” Adey reminded us throughout the cooking process. She swore to us that each of our dishes would look and taste drastically different, despite the fact that we were all using the exact same ingredients in more or less the same quantities. We wandered around the room with our spoons to sample each others’ dishes, encouraged and amazed by the stark contrasts between each effort: “This one is so brown!” “Oooh you can definitely taste the cabbage in that one.” “Wow that yellow color is beautiful.”
Next up was Doro Alicha, a mild chicken dish. We did not brown the onions this time and used Makulaya, an Ethiopian allspice mixture. But what truly made this dish was the Niter Kibbe, a seasoned clarified butter. Making our rounds again, we noted the significant difference between dishes made with just oil and those with butter. Even the colors ranged from a greyish green to a bright yellow-green.
Things literally started to heat up as we started the Sega Wot. Not only does the red Berbere provide a good kick to the dish, by this point we had been cooking on medium-high open flames for about two and half hours straight. Once we got the onions to brown and added the Berbere and beef to simmer we all took much-needed breaks to enjoy the breeze outside.
Finally finished, we brought our plates into the next room to sit down with heaping injera, a kind of crêpe-meets-naan spongey flatbread, and tej, Ethiopian honey wine. Our instructors demonstrated how to eat using the injera rather than forks, wrapping up bite-size pieces of our dishes “like little burritos.” Shoveling my plate with injera, the meal quickly filled me up. The pride I felt knowing that I created these dishes I thought could only be found in restaurants made the meal all the more delicious. At the end of our meal, we had the opportunity to buy the unique spices we used in our recipes.
If you go:
1960 Mandela Parkway (American Steel Studios Bay 8 entrance on 18th Street between Poplar Street and Mandela Parkway)
$85 registration fee
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
I’d suggest giving yourself extra time before class to find the entrance (even more if you need parking) and don’t make plans right after class–my class and meal ended an hour after the time posted on the website. You want to have plenty of time to enjoy your hard work!