Ethiopian expat Yeshi Desta brings a fascinating taste of her home country to those lucky enough to book tickets at her pop-up events, attend her hosted dinner parties, or chance upon her holding the occasional buna (Ethiopian coffee ceremony) at festivals and events.
Smell is such a powerful sense and perhaps more than any other has the ability to transport the mind to far-off places. From a large jar (a supply she picked up on her last visit home), Desta pinches out chunks of frankincense, and places them in an incense burner: lit up, they hiss and start to emit a richly fragrant smoke.
She gets to work roasting green coffee beans, also from her home country (Ethiopia is where coffee plants were first discovered) in a small pan over a portable gas stove. "I would normally do this over charcoal", she explains, showing me her traditional charcoal-burner, "but the smoke sets off the fire alarm." The combined aroma of the toasting beans, which rustle musically in the pan, and the incense, transports me to somewhere I've never even been.
The mountainous north of Ethiopia is where Desta was born and raised, apart from time spent in Sudan, where her family fled for a time. A teenage Desta and her older sister arrived in Aotearoa more than 20 years ago. Today on a warm and sunny winter's afternoon on the balcony of her inner-city Auckland apartment, Desta, dressed in long white cotton robes with bright coloured embroidery, is going through the precise but relaxed-feeling ritual of buna, the from-scratch coffee-making ceremony ubiquitous in Ethiopia.
Each batch of beans roasted can be brewed and sipped from small cups three times over, the flavour becoming mellower each time. Buna, Desta tells me, would ordinarily be undertaken with company, never in a rush, three times a day: morning, early afternoon and in the evening before dinner.
On the topic of dinner, Desta has been offering the public the chance to experience Ethiopian shared-style feasts since the start of 2020, when she launched her pop-up and private catering company My Mother's Kitchen. She pulls the buna and the feasts together in between shifts at Xuxu in Auckland's Britomart, where she's worked the front of house for a decade. She's a hospo natural, who loves being around people. "Mum [for whom Desta's business is named] used to tell me I could have a conversation with rocks," she says, laughing. "I love bringing people together, I have loved cooking from an early age, and I love that I can share my culture while doing both."
Desta advertises events on her Instagram page @my.mothers.kitchen and they sell out quickly. A few months ago I nabbed tickets to a vegan feast held in the courtyard of Coco's Cantina on Karangahape Road. Desta made it all look easy on the night, despite being in sole charge of cooking, serving, clearing, introducing each dish and giving the table of 20 or so guests bite-sized history lessons in Ethiopian cuisine and the customs it aligns with.
In truth, she'd been prepping and cooking for days in advance, as she does with every event. Injera, the staple that accompanies every Ethiopian meal, is a multi-day process: a batter of flour made from the nutritious teff grain undergoes different stages of fermentation before being cooked into large pancakes resembling large, thin crumpets. Springy, with a distinct tang, injera is used to scoop up various stews called wots. At our vegan feast, these included shiro wot, made with spiced chickpea flour, tangy and complex brown lentil misir wot, and chunky, potato, cabbage and carrot-based alicha wot. A timatim salad of sliced capsicum, onion, tomato and jalapeno was the perfect refreshing foil.
Many dishes start with the spice base silsi; it consists of onion cooked down for a very long time, garlic, ginger, tomato paste, and berbere, a spice blend integral to the Ethiopian kitchen. Berbere's exact ingredients vary according to the cook but key elements are red chilli, fenugreek, cloves, cumin, black pepper, and the seeds of Ethiopia's beloved black cardamom. "It's called korarima", says Desta as she unscrews the lid on a jar of the round black seeds, "And the smell of that is the smell of home."
Over our vegan meal and its background of complex and soulful Ethio Jazz music, Desta explained that meals without meat or dairy are a common feature of Ethiopian life. The teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, to which the vast majority of the population adheres, lay out a strict schedule of fasting days, where certain foods are off the menu.
Not every day is a fast day, though, and My Mother's Kitchen lays on plenty of omnivorous feasts, too. They might include wots with beef, eggs, or chicken. They'll certainly feature Desta's niter kibbeh – spiced clarified butter, and perhaps also her ayib – a fresh curd cheese a bit like ricotta, which pairs beautiful with niter kibbeh and himbasha – large, round, savoury-sweet decoratively scored bread.
Seek out a chance to be Desta's guest for buna, or a colourful, flavoursome feast. The scent-rich experience will whisk you away, the journey bolstered by terrific tastes. Āmeseginalehu – thank you, My Mother's Kitchen!
My Mother's Kitchen's next pop-up event is Food and Music Vol 2 at The Pinter on Waiheke Island, August 26. Tickets available from iticket.co.nz