Eighteen years ago, when Feven Kahsay lived in her home region of Tigray, Ethiopia, she’d prepare traditional dishes for her family such as hilbet, a fine powder of lentils and fava beans, or their region’s version of shiro, a vegetarian stew. She even owned a breakfast cafe for a time in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Feven now serves this regional cuisine alongside more prominent Ethiopian dishes such as kitfo at her restaurant, Tigrai Cafe in downtown Oakland, which she co-owns with her husband Abaylak Tesfay and business partner Kiros Kahsay (no relation to Feven Kahsay).
Her daughter Hewan particularly loves her mother’s Kitfo, a classic Ethiopian dish consisting of raw or cooked beef, clarified butter, and a bright-red spice powder called mitmita.
“I’m not even being biased, I’ve tried kitfo at other Ethiopian restaurants and they’re good, but her kitfo is really, really good,” Hewan said.
Feven handles the cooking and said in an interview conducted in Tigrinya and English, with translation provided by her daughter Hewan Tesfay, that she is “passionate about making food, catering to people.”
Feven, Abaylak, and Kiros used their life savings to open Tigrai Cafe about nine months ago with two goals in mind. The first was to establish a cafe to build a better future for their families and the second was to create a space to showcase their home region’s food and culture.
A long road to Oakland
When Feven came to Oakland 18 years ago, she left behind her husband and two kids. Her Eritrean uncle, who was her VISA sponsor and living in Oakland, could only support her immigration to the U.S. She worked several jobs at a time, doing everything from restaurant work to driving for Uber to working as a security guard.
Hewan said her mother always intended to bring her whole family to Oakland to establish a better life for them all.
“We didn’t have many resources back home and there was a lack of options for good schools for us, so the goal has always been to have a good life—go to school, get a good job,” Hewan said.
In 2007, two years after Feven’s arrival, her kids came to live with her. A couple of years ago, Hewan graduated from Grand Canyon University with a master’s in forensic psychology and is now a family therapist in East Oakland.
When Fevan’s husband, Abaylak, arrived in Oakland around 2014 he began driving for Uber as did their business partner Kiros. A good amount of the money they earned went towards starting what would become Tigrai Cafe. Hewan said her mother also worked constantly but was always saving money to start another restaurant and return to her culinary roots.
“It’s something that I admire but it’s also something that makes me sad because nobody wants to see their parents working that hard, especially when they’re aging,” Hewan said. “I just try to convert that anger and sadness into something positive because if they can work night and day to give us the life they’ve given us today, then I can take that and build generational wealth so we can stop working day and night.”
A space free of political conflict
In opening their restaurant, Feven and Abaylak wanted to create a space for Tigrayans in Oakland to gather. “We want it to be a space for all, and we also want it to be a safe space for Tigrayans,” Feven said. Like many Ethiopian and Eritrean businesses in the East Bay, it’s embedded in a transnational community that is trying to heal from a deep-seated conflict.
Oakland is home to a prominent Ethiopian community but they are not a homogenous group. Around 80 ethnic groups call Ethiopia home and each of them has its separate languages, cultural traditions, and staple food dishes. Tigrayans are one such group and are the minority in Ethiopia as well as within Oakland’s Ethiopian immigrant population.
Even the choice to spell “Tigrai” instead of “Tigray” is rooted in cultural identity. Ethiopia has five official languages, though Amharic is widely spoken. Tigrayans speak the regional language of Tigrinya and spell Tigray with an “i.” The “i” becomes “y” when translated into other popular languages such as Amharic.
“In our territory, we use the ‘i’,” Abaylak said.
Tigrayans have been living through an intense civil war for several years now, one that has created rifts in the broader Ethiopian community, tensions that affect even Tigrayans living in Oakland.
The civil war began in 2020 after long-standing tensions between the former ruling political party Tigray People’s Liberation Front and current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally boiled over into conflict. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front accused Ahmed’s government of consolidating power and weakening regional political parties’ influence, while Ahmed accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front of trying to take back control of the country.
“This fight is over a thousand years old and the leaders continue this fighting,” Abaylak said.
The war resulted in a government-created telecommunications blackout in the Tigray region, genocide, and human rights abuses committed by both political groups’ armed forces.
After two years of bloodshed, both the TPLF and the Ahmed administration announced a ceasefire agreement last November. Peace is fragile but for the Tesfays, it is more than welcomed.
“We have family members that were impacted by this, and so far, they are doing well,” Hewan said.
The family hopes their restaurant can upend stereotypes about Tigrayan people. “There were a lot of false rumors going around about our ethnic group and we were being labeled as terrorists, Hewan said. “Our story wasn’t being written correctly. That is not a representation of who we are.”
Hewan believes that food is one of the best ways her family can introduce their traditions to other people. She points to their diverse clientele as an example that Ethiopians, Eritreans, and others can enjoy Tigrayan cuisine free of political conflict.
“We welcome many of our Eritrean and Ethiopian brothers,” said Hewan. We play Ethiopian music. We’re very welcoming. We just try to make this home and not bring politics to it so we can show that we are culturally kind and genuine.”
Hewan’s father Abaylak sees their restaurant as a space that should be free from political affiliations. After all, Ethiopian food and culture have to be the focus if they want to build a lasting legacy in their second home of Oakland.
“If I make this restaurant only for Tigrayans, we will not stay open,” Abaylak said. “This has to be a restaurant for all Ethiopians, Arabs, all kinds of people.”
Tigrai Cafe. 1009 Clay St, Oakland, CA