Communities of Cuisine:
3. Village Life

Forget about your Ethiopian feast around a mesob, sipping t'ej as you eat, and listening to a begena or masinko playing over a tinny stereo, all in the venue of a cozy urban restaurant with four sturdy wall.

For a brief while, if you wanted Ethiopian food in Alaska, you had to visit the neighborhood yurt.

And it was a big neighborhood. In all of Alaska, there has been only one Ethiopian restaurant: Tekul, formerly located on College Road, just a few minutes from the campus of the University of Fairbanks, and now closed, its owner says, after a "successful and disastrous" brief life.

Alex Antohin, a great-great-grandson of Ethiopia's last emperor, opened Tekul in June 2007, a few months after graduating with a degree in sociology from the University of Fairbanks. He did it to honor his Ethiopian heritage and the food he grew up loving, but also as an experiment to bring some culinary diversity to a place with almost none.

Born in Virginia, Antohin grew up mostly in Fairbanks, where his Russian-born father is a professor of theater at the university, and his Ethiopian-born mother, a great-granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie, is a teacher and anthropologist. He named his restaurant for a kind of traditional Ethiopian wood hut, his maternal culture's version of a yurt - that is, an Alaskan native home made of a cloth tent, draped in the shape of a dome over a framework constructed from tree branches.

"There isn't a lot of choice, food-wise, in my town," Antohin says of Fairbanks, where you can get Thai, Chinese, pizza, and little more that isn't simply America. How, he wondered, could a nascent entrepreneur remedy that absence in an economical way, using the money his relatives gave him for graduation. He didn't want to (and couldn't afford to) take out a lease on a building. So he approached a businessman who owned a large office building and an empty parking lot, and he leased a corner of the lot month to month.

The history of Ethiopian food communities in America's smaller cities and even small towns - in states without large Ethiopian populations - varies from place to place. And yet, you never know where you'll find a good Ethiopian meal. Who would have imagined finding an Ethiopian community in Sioux Falls, S.D., or an Ethiopian restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah? Cleveland has just one restaurant and no markets, yet the smaller city of Columbus, Ohio, has several restaurants and markets - and an interesting mix of cultures among the community.

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ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman