Fasika Chef And Owner Makes Yearly Trek Back To Homeland To Create Dishes
It wasn’t until he was hundreds of miles away from Ethiopia that Befekadu Defar fell in love with the food of his childhood.
Befekadu Defar is passionate about Ethiopian food. Hailing from Addis Ababa, he admits he didn’t always care about his homeland’s culinary traditions. He was one of the 10 restaurateurs whose food was featured at the YUM fundraiser on April 6, which supported the work of The Welcome Project. The seventh annual fundraiser coincided with the 30th anniversary of Somerville’s sanctuary city status, and The Welcome Project’s existence.
“My whole passion started at the school [in Switzerland], Defar said.
The owner of Fasika Ethiopian Restaurant in Somerville originally hails from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. When he was younger, Defar would help his mother in the kitchen, and eventually went to culinary school in Ethiopia. But it wasn’t until he got a scholarship to a culinary school in Switzerland that he realized how important it was to spread Ethiopian culture through the country’s food.
“If we talk about Ethiopia or, in general, Africa – people don’t know much about Africa, except that it’s a continent. They have different kinds of negative ideas,” Defar said. “But when we give our food, it’s a way of building a positive attitude about people in Ethiopia – we have a culture, we have cooking, we have a tradition.”
The night of the YUM fundraiser, volunteers doled out hot plates of marinated and seasoned chicken, and an Ethiopian home staple known as misr wat, a spicy red lentil dish. The dishes were served with injera, a soft, porous, and slightly sour flatbread meant to scoop up one’s food, in traditional Ethiopian cooking.
But the spices flavoring the food didn’t come from Massachusetts, or even the United States. At least once a year, Defar or his wife visits Ethiopia to pick up spices in bulk. Though the journey is long, it’s part and parcel of Defar’s dedication to his country’s food.
“You can get the spices here, but it’s not going to be the same,” Defar said. “It’s in the soil, the strength of the spices, and it’s closer to the culture.”
Defar also makes food the traditional way, which means preparing various elements of dishes hours in advance, every day, in order to meet dinner and lunch rush demands. The most time-intensive portion is the sauce, he said.
“You have to make it the right way. It takes five to six hours to prepare the basic sauce. Everything else evolves from that,” Defar said.
There was a time when Defar didn’t take cooking this seriously, Ethiopian or otherwise. Cooking only to secure his financial future, his original decision to attend culinary school in Ethiopia was to “just get a hotel job, or something like that.”
While he discovered a deep love of cooking at the school in Ethiopia, Defar’s “thunderbolt” moment came during a class cooking exhibition, during which students were instructed to present foods from their cultures. Defar and his fellow Ethiopian classmates found themselves surrounded by a sea of European dishes, with similar flavors and spices.
“We presented the dishes, and no one from Scandinavia or Europe had had those dishes in their life,” Defar said. “Some of them were really amazed at the way the food was tasting. … For some, it was too spicy, but they still appreciated the flavor and the taste. So, I said, ‘If I am able to do all this in a small setting, why not in a big setting?’”
From there, Defar decided to go to the United States, and planned to eventually open an Ethiopian restaurant. He debuted his first restaurant in Jamaica Plain, under the same name, and then moved the restaurant to Somerville.
Defar is anything but hands-off in the restaurant’s kitchen – and the rest of his family follows suit. While Defar cooks, his wife helps out in the kitchen in her spare time, prepping ingredients or making spice blends. Their children are out front, as servers and hosts. All of them are enthusiastic about sharing their culture, Defar said, but not to the exclusion of other immigrants. It’s quite the opposite.
“Everything is possible if we work hard, and work with them. That is also why I take it more seriously, sharing food,” he said.