The humanitarian situation in Ethiopia remains grim, as the 15-month-old civil war between the government and rebels (who once led the government) has displaced more than two million people, triggered famine, and involved the killing of thousands, with claims of ethnic cleansing and civilian murder on both sides. The history of what led to this is as complicated as global affairs gets, but no matter which version of events you believe, help for the everyday Ethiopian affected by the war is very clearly needed, and it will be that way for a very long time.
Santa Barbara restaurant owner Serkaddis Alemu just witnessed the effects of the conflict firsthand during a five-week family trip to her homeland. She was one of more than one million expats who returned in December and January as part of a support campaign that the government billed “The Great Ethiopian Homecoming.”
“I didn’t want to sit around and dwell in the sorrow,” said Alemu, who owns Petit Valentien with her husband, Robert Dixon, where they serve French food most of the time but Ethiopian cuisine for brunch on the weekends. “I wanted to do what I could do to give a little bit.”
On February 20, the restaurant is hosting an Ethiopian feast for 32 guests who are donating $1,000 each to the nonprofit Wonfel, which supports social causes across Ethiopia. An Amharic word, “wonfel” means “a turn to pay back,” and refers to the practice of helping people in need.
The feast will be an onslaught of freshly made vegetable dishes, breads (starring the spongy, teff-based flatbread injera), and meats (probably short rib, always served last), but the point is more the experience than the actual food. “You’re getting the cultural exposure of when Ethiopians get together — this is how they eat,” explained Alemu, whose options for what to serve are essentially unbound. “On average, I can think of 2,000 recipes. We won’t have that many, but there will be quite an array. I will be surprised if people finish. They can take it home.”
The meal will conclude with the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which Petit Valentien just started serving every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon. “It’s one of the many things that we do in Ethiopia to strengthen the community,” she said. “We wanted to do that for our Santa Barbara families here.”
The tradition probably goes back millennia — coffee is originally from Ethiopia, after all — and involves a full preparation and ingestion process, from washing and roasting the green beans, to cooking the coffee, to drinking three small cups. Meanwhile, frankincense — also from Ethiopia — is burning, snacks (typically popcorn or popped sorghum) are being enjoyed, and conversation is rampant.
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“The idea is to awaken your five senses,” said Alemu, who said the coffee is not as thick as Turkish and not as bitter as Cuban. “Ethiopians focus more on the aroma and the taste, getting that chocolate-y oil out of the coffee bean.”
The coffee is prepared in a pot called a jebena. “Each different region of Ethiopia has their vessel,” said Alemu. “As you go to the countryside, they tend to have bigger families, and the vessels tend to be much larger. In the city, they are medium-sized and very pretty. I call them pretty and ugly, and I like the ugly ones — the bigger, the better!”
There is symbolic, even spiritual meaning to the three different cups, but coffee lovers should also enjoy the procession from very dark brew to lighter as the grinds get reused. “It’s about following the textures and the flavors of the coffee bean,” said Alemu, who will be running the ceremony on a donation-based basis for the next six months.
Alemu is also putting the finishing touches on her next Ethiopian education project: an injera-making kit for people to try making the flatbread at home. The kit will come with ivory and brown teff, a dough starter, a recipe book, and an instructional video for how to do it on your stovetop.
“It’s a very hard and finicky thing to do,” said Alemu, who hopes to later expand the lesson into using a traditional griddle. “I have cut as many corners as I can to simplify it.”
All of these projects mark the evolution of her Ethiopian cuisine, which she began serving at Petit Valentien nine years ago, about five years after the restaurant opened in La Arcada. Back then, she never envisioned having to turn the restaurant into a place to raise money for her war-ravaged homeland, but believes her February 20 fundraiser will make a difference.
“This is just the beginning. That’s a drop in the ocean. There’s gonna need to be a lot of help,” she said. “I want to share the blessings that I have in life.”
Sign up for the February 20 fundraiser under the Donate button at wonfel.org, and experience the coffee ceremony on Mondays, 10 a.m.-noon, at Petit Valentien (1114 State St. #14;  966-0222; petitvalentien.com).