Our first experience at Beteseb Ethio-Eritrean Restaurant was a weekday months ago, a four-hour meal we used to get through a deadline; easeful in company of the aromas of roasting coffee beans. Walking in, we heard an exchange in children’s laughter and a clear view of women cooking in an open kitchen.
Because societally we are accustomed to hidden kitchens and the separation of home cooking and service work, at first you could feel surprised seeing a whole family, but their visibility is intentional.
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories and photographs by Andrea Nieto and Emilianna Vazquez, two Orange County-based photographers and writers who delve deep into their stories and like to capture nuances in spaces they are invited into. They focus on cultural intimacies and dynamics with a current concentration on food. They look to expand within and beyond food in Orange County in the future.
Beteseb translates in Amharic to family. Wesen z Asfaw co-owns and runs the restaurant primarily with his sister-in-law Bethlehem Alemseged (Beth) with help from the whole family. He describes their approach as, “We create home here and go from there.”
Beteseb opened March 4, 2020, only a few days before the first lockdown; like most restaurants, they’ve adjusted. Still serving every day and currently the only Ethiopean mini-market in Orange County, providing imported spices, meat cuts, homemade gluten-free 100% teff injera (a porous light bread made of teff grain that accompanies all dishes) — a direct line between kitchens. They’ve been able to stay open by cutting back on their own buying, maintaining their philosophy of making each meal to serve. Wesen occasionally made the drive to south Orange County to deliver fresh meats and meals. They have now added Uber Eats to their business model.
1212 S Dale Ave, Anaheim
Beteseb never was too concerned with being a typically modeled restaurant anyways. There are no prep shifts or large containers of frozen pre-made items. There are no staff currently; each member of the family contributes to roles — but only the grandmother makes doro wot, a deep red stew made rich and spiced with berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend typically composed of chiles, ginger, fenugreek and other warm spices. It’s served with one chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg. The sauce is slowly simmered and brings together a full flavor soaked up by the base of injera.
Most weekdays you will see Beth open the doors making daily batches of injera. She fluctuates between checking the stoves and her daughter’s schoolwork. The morning time is thick with their relationship as a single mom and daughter in this new reality; both seem so at home in each other’s company here.
Because it’s a four-day process, much of the local Ethiopean community seeks the recently made injera, knowing it’s fresh. About 10-13 bags are freshly made and with any left over, Beth makes bags of chips; at any free moment it seems Beth is pouring or bagging or folding injera.
Beth said she enjoys every part of the process and on days she’s away at her second job, her daughter calls and says, “ I miss squeezing your cheeks.”
From the outside we can only see a few of the ways this kitchen is generative of foundational intimacy which provides nourishment in a meal, in relation to its ingredients and its intention.
We had very similar conversations with both Beth and Wesen in terms of owning this establishment and how they share it. We spoke to them separately and hearing Wesen say, “Did I give it up with my heart? The way I wanted it? Or just to make money.”
Beth echoed, “It’s because I’m making it with love.”
They are not reserved in their mission and transparent with what upholds their integrity; they only make what they would eat themselves. Ethipoian cuisine is inherently communal and we are sure the experience is longed for.
We’ve always visited with a dedicated afternoon because the timing of homemade food is reflective in the dishes, cooking and eating we’ve seen intertwine with the legacy of ingredients and recipes. A small squint from the smile beneath Beth’s mask greets you as she floats from kitchen to counter.
At this point she knows we order ahead sambusas and coffee. She always chuckles at the fact we drink it black but we enjoy the fullness of the roasted beans and cardamom as a finish to our meal. The sambusas come out hot and crispy; they are fried stove-top not deep-fryer, they flake, somehow the onions and cilantro in the vegan lentil mix maintain their crunch. We like breaking them apart, enjoying the heat that leaves them, and we’re attentive to the details of these dishes because Wesen and Beth are vocal about their steps in making everything as nourishing as possible. They care about the health people receive in their food and they care about being open to suggestions as well as their truths.
Andrea Nieto and Emilianna Vazquez are contributing photographers and writers for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. They can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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