Vibrant Ethiopian restaurants in North Seattle
By Steve Scherr
August 29, 2017

Known by her infectious smile, Martha Seyoum is undoubtedly the most lovable person in her own class

On a recent late-morning stroll, I stopped at Jebena Cafe, one of a 
handful of East African businesses that dot the southern edge of North Seattle’s Pinehurst neighborhood, and ordered the foul for breakfast: a bowl of fava beans, onions, serrano chiles, feta cheese, tomatoes and eggs served with warm French bread for dipping. The only other customer, Mulugeta G. Deso, assured me 
I wouldn’t go wrong with this dish. He was right; it was delicious.

Like many of the Ethiopians who have settled in the Pacific Northwest, Deso, a onetime aircraft mechanic and current parking lot attendant who settled in this country 19 years ago, found opportunity here.

“America has a reputation for being generous and welcoming,” he said, speaking without irony, despite the immigrant discussions happening in the other Washington. We were both welcomed by owner Martha Seyoum, who left Ethiopia 26 years ago. She stood at the rear of her café, in front of the outline of a large jebena, the long-necked East African coffee pot. She greeted us with arms wide, happy to be alive.

“I had brain tumors, a pancreatic cancer operation, bleeding out five pints a day,” she says, revealing a recent health crisis. “When the doctors had given up, the good Lord told me, you stay.” So here she is, happy to still be running the business with her brother, Mesfin Ayele. In their adjacent store, Jebena Market, there are stacks of spices, including ground pinecone that smells of dry, distant forests.

This slice of East Africa may seem surprising. Many East Africans came here in the 1990s and early 2000s, when thousands of refugees fled the violence in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Most of the region’s East African population of 40,000 settled in South Seattle and southwest King County, but there is also a community in North Seattle. The 2010 census estimated 6.3 percent of the 8,600 Pinehurst residents spoke African languages at home.

The cluster of Ethiopian and Eritrean businesses in Pinehurst came about organically. As often happens, one or two families settle in a neighborhood, and relatives follow. More family and friends come. Someone can’t find teff, the grain needed to make the spongy Ethiopian bread, injera, at the local Safeway. Someone else yearns for canned fava beans and the green coffee beans from home. New residents who were merchants in Addis Ababa still have contacts there and the needed skills; a restaurant opens, orders are placed, storage is needed. Soon, more stores and small businesses appear.

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