The hidden history of Zeni, the most famous Ethiopian restaurant in the Bay Area

In the case of the San Jose area, in particular, the first dot-com bubble in the mid-1990s created a demand for an incredible amount of labor to build the electronic components for personal computers, which were quickly becoming a necessity. domestic in American homes. . Companies like IBM and Cisco have embarked on a hiring wave to keep up with demand, coinciding with the influx of new immigrants. Ethiopians came to Silicon Valley for these jobs, and many ended up staying in the area. By some estimates, Ethiopia’s population has reached around 25,000 in Santa Clara County alone.

But what makes Zeni so unique isn’t just about demographics. Instead, there is a love story at the heart of the restaurant.

Before Gebremariam and her late husband Abebaw “Muna” Feki opened their restaurant almost 20 years ago, they first had to risk their lives to be together. As a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) as a teenager, Feki fought against the Derg, the oppressive military regime that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. When Feki ended up being captured, Gebremariam – who was already married to him at the time – immediately began working with Feki’s family on a plan to free him.

Long neck painted bottles for serving tej, or traditional Ethiopian honey wine. (Beth LaBerge / KQED)

“His family found a guard to bribe, so when he escaped the camp never knew he was missing,” Gebremariam recalls. Nowadays, she is a tireless veteran of the restaurant industry, but at the time, she was just a scared child. Even then, however, Gebremariam was incredibly intelligent and resourceful.

Back in Addis Ababa, the teenage lovers decided that the only way to ensure their safety was to flee the country altogether. But it wasn’t until the Derg’s overwhelming rule was nearly over that they were able to make it to Kenya. Gebremariam first went to Nairobi and found a home while Feki finished school. Eventually he was able to join her, having obtained a temporary stay as an agricultural specialist. After both exited Ethiopia, they applied to be resettled in the United States, which they were granted in 1991.

After the young couple arrived in San Jose, Feki took on one of those tech jobs in semiconductor construction for IBM. After long shifts, he would come home and shuttle orders for homemade Ethiopian food that Gebremariam had prepared – she had started a small informal business serving other Ethiopians eager to taste at home. Eventually, Feki was so inspired by his wife’s passion for cooking that he quit his job and mortgaged the house. He spent the last years of his life helping Gebremariam realize his vision of opening and running a successful restaurant.

“[Feki] loved and adored his wife and wanted to give her whatever she wanted, ”said Getachew, the immigration lawyer. “He became the backbone of his dream, and from this Zeni Restaurant was born.”

A woman prepares a large pot of stew in the kitchen of a restaurant.
Gebremariam says she learned to cook by watching her mother. (Beth LaBerge / KQED)

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make no mistake, however: Zeni is Gebremariam’s end-to-end success story. Everyone in the Ethiopian community is familiar with the restaurant these days, often traveling from the far corners of the bay just to enjoy a meal. For many years, it was one of the only Ethiopian restaurants recommended by the Bay Area edition of the Michelin Guide. Zeni is also known for its stunning interior: inside, natural light floods the space during the day, illuminating the dense and colorful textures of traditional textiles, cultural artifacts and the hand-crafted thatched hut that is the centerpiece of the dining room. The all-female staff work with such a level of collective grace that they almost seem choreographed.

And then, of course, there’s the food, which is spectacular. The basis of each order should be the restaurant’s vegetarian combo, a special assortment of five vegetable dishes, each with its own distinct character. For his atakelt wot, for example, Gebremariam lightly caramelizes cabbage, potatoes and carrots, then coats the trio in a delicate turmeric broth. Beg tibs – Getachew’s favorite – is made with cubes of fresh lamb that have been lightly fried in spicy clarified butter called niter kibbeh and mixed with sweet white onions and green peppers.


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