Menkir Tamrat at work on the farm. (Meradith Hoddinott/KQED)
Menkir Tamrat first came to the U.S. from Ethiopia to pursue a career in tech. But now he’s forging a connection to his childhood home through farming specialty Ethiopian chili peppers outside of Fremont in the East Bay.
At his farm, he walks down a row of leaf-green pepper plants to a shady arbor in back. The peppers are ripening to vibrant reds and chocolatey browns. In the coming weeks, Menkir will dry them, crush them and make them into spice blends essential to Ethiopian cuisine.
"Imagine, there's the berbere, the chili, first,” Menkir explains. “And then 12- or 11-plus additions of seasonings and spices and herbs. So it's a sum of all these different things.”
Menkir wasn’t always a farmer. He grew up in the countryside of Ethiopia in the 1960s. He watched farmers working in the fields and selling their vegetables at the market.
In the early 1980s, Menkir got his MBA and came to the Bay Area to start a career in high-tech management. The food from his homeland was never far from his heart. But when he tried to recreate it with local California ingredients, something was missing.
So he went to Ethiopia and brought back the seeds he needed to start a garden. At his home in Fremont, he filled his yard with Ethiopian herbs and vegetables -- like the ripening berbere peppers that are a central ingredient in a rich red stew called wot.
For decades, Menkir’s garden was just a passion project. But when his tech company downsized in 2009, he took the opportunity to grow these Ethiopian flavors on a larger scale. He connected with a local farm, and by that summer he had 5,000 pepper plants taking root in California soil.
His goal was to recreate the spice mixes from his homeland. Menkir poured over books and articles and recipes searching for the perfect balance of spices -- but he realized he was missing a major secret ingredient: the mom touch.
“Ethiopian cuisine is like so-and-so's mom is known for her such-and-such,” Menkir says. “And she may have one little secret thing that she adds in it. So you never get the same thing from two families making the same stew. I couldn't create the chili powder from off-the-shelf chilies. It's a hit and miss. How do you know which one might be the closest?”
So Menkir turned to his mother’s friend, who lived in Oakland, and he’d follow his mother-in-law around the kitchen with a notebook when she came to visit from Ethiopia.
“They kind of have a sense of feel,” Menkir says admiringly. “The good chefs, they don't measure anything.”
Through trial and error, Menkir finally perfected the spice blends he had dreamed about when he first started his garden.
“I even took some samples to a restaurant in Ethiopia,” Menkir brags. “Just to show off, I said 'Why don't you guys taste this?' And the lady just could not believe it that I brought this from America and a man made it.”
Today, Menkir’s company sells his spices mainly to Ethiopian restaurants in the Bay Area.
He divides his time between California and Ethiopia -- where he just started a new farm that grows crops like Swiss chard and Tuscan kale for high-end Western restaurants in the capital, Addis Ababa.