Passing on a legacy of Ethiopian cuisine at Zemam’s


Amanuel Gebremariam is chef-owner of Zemam and Zemam too restaurants in Tucson, Arizona. Zemam’s was the first Ethiopian restaurant in town. Gebremariam’s children, Favin, Noah and Lucas, now help run and promote the restaurants, and the family plans to expand their original location with an international sports bar later this year.

AMANUEL GEBREMARIAM: I came to this country from Eritrea about 30 years ago with nothing in my pocket. I used to work at a company that rebuilt jumbo jets as an assistant administrator. But one day I had a fight with my boss because we lost a contract with a multi-million dollar company. From that day on, I said, I won’t work for anyone. I wanted to start my own business, so I opened a restaurant with four tables, with my family members as waitresses and my dishwashers. And here I am, 29 years later, with two restaurants of my own.

I have no formal cooking training. However, I watched my mother cook. With us, cooking is a domestic job and is mostly reserved for women, not men. But I like cooking chemistry. My major in college was chemistry. And that’s why I named the restaurant after my mother’s name, Zemam.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

FAVIN GEBRE MARIAM: I am one of six children. I was in fourth or fifth grade when he said he was going to open a restaurant. There was a resounding “Wait. What?” in the house, because he only made us his “famous” spaghetti.

We knew he could cook. But at home, Mom did most of the cooking. We thought, “Dad is opening a restaurant? What is he going to do ? Will it be a spaghetti restaurant? It was a wonderful experience for all of us because it was a bridge kind of thing.

AMANUEL: Most people here didn’t know about Ethiopian cuisine when we started. In fact, there was a talk show host on the radio who said that at the time Ethiopia was in the throes of famine. It was really hungry and there was a big problem in Ethiopia. And this guy said, “Oh, a new restaurant opened up in Tucson. And what do Ethiopians have to offer? They are starving.

FAVIN: He said that on the radio?

AMANUEL: He said that on the radio. Three months later, he came and apologized. He said, “I was so wrong. I’m really sorry, I didn’t know any Ethiopian restaurant.

FAVIN: But here in Tucson, we weren’t just the first Ethiopian restaurant. We were the only African restaurant for years.

AMANUEL: So when people came here to eat, they expected to have forks and knives. Certainly people had to be educated. There was an element of ignorance around cooking and how you eat it and the ingredients. People calling us and asking, “How can you have an Ethiopian restaurant? I thought Ethiopians ate insects and slugs. We’ve had some pretty ignorant comments like that.

Now I think everyone knows how to eat Ethiopian food. Tucson can be a transit town, and so people come here from big cities that have Ethiopian restaurants. It’s becoming more and more common. People come from far and wide, as far away as Phoenix and New Mexico, to eat out.

All recipes are from my mother. I’ve done my homework on other Ethiopian restaurants in the US. I’ve been to California and LA on Fairfax Avenue. There are so many out there. I started experimenting on my own and 99.9% of the recipes are mine, based on my mother’s old recipes.

My mother knew there was a restaurant named after her. She asked me, “What can a man cook in a restaurant?” And I said, “Mom, you should come and try my food. It’s so good.” I tried to buy her a ticket to come to Tucson from Eritrea and she refused it. She was afraid of flying, so she didn’t come.

I’m still experimenting all the time. What tastes better? What if I cooked it with oil from Ethiopia? The cooking fat in Ethiopia is butter. It can be a bit greasy and oily. Here we do it with vegetable oil. Americans often diet and worry about what they eat.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

FAVIN: It really satisfied the American palate – it’s very sensitive to oils, very sensitive to dietary restrictions – while keeping the authenticity of the flavors, the way it’s prepared, how it looks and how it’s served. There are also Ethiopians and Eritreans here in Tucson who come, and we want to make sure it tastes like the food they remember. This whole process is taken into account when he cooks and when he tries new recipes. Everything is very, very thoughtful.

I think COVID has definitely affected everyone. At one point we had to close both restaurants for three months without serving anything. The government gave us help, financial help.

We received a double whammy. One of our restaurants is on a main street in Tucson—Broadway. We have been hit hard by a street widening project. We had to close this restaurant for a year and a half because we can’t get in. The construction is right against the front door. So not only were we coping with the pandemic, but we really only had one functioning restaurant.

But because we had two restaurants, we were lucky to be stabilized a bit more than some of our small business counterparts in town. It was terrible for everyone, but we were very lucky. We have a customer base who were there to support us from the moment we opened our doors.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

AMANUEL: During the pandemic, my son started drawing with injera paste. He makes them to celebrate holidays or represent international icons like superheroes or cartoon characters. The people who come, you can see the smile on their face when they see the drawings.

FAVIN: It was a slow time. My two younger brothers, Noah and Luke, work full time at the restaurant. They are both talented artists. Noah was like, “I wonder if we could do something fun and funky with this.” They just started playing with it.

NOAH GEBREMARIAM: My brother and I always drew little shapes with the leftover dough. One day I realized that injera is already very light in the form we make it. It is malleable to anything we can do with it. So I added some color and then I took the tie-dye bottles you use for shirts and filled them with colored paste and started with that.

It was just for fun at first. Then I thought, “Maybe people will like this?” Then it exploded. The one that really took off was a Kokopelli. It’s a local southwest icon.

On request, I made some birthday injera. But more than that, I’m just assessing who’s in the restaurant. If I think they’ll like something I drew that day, I’ll say, “Hey, do you want that?” They’ll be very skeptical at first, then they’ll see it and they’ll be really into it. Those that are really complex require a lot more attention.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

FAVIN: When we were in high school, we all worked. The emotions of having to work with our siblings for our father were like “why do we have to do this? I want to go to a party. I want to have a Saturday morning, I want to have a sleepover.

So maybe there was a bit of resentment while we were growing up because we didn’t choose that. And he was our boss, but also our father, so we literally had to do whatever he said. Now that we’re in our thirties, I’m so much more aware of all that needs to be done. It’s crazy that he could continue.

Now we’re like, “OK, Dad, it’s time for you to take a nap.” It’s time for you to go. Let’s do this hard work now. These are your golden years. He did all the legwork. He created the brand and the notoriety, it is up to us to continue to drive it forward.

We said “what time do I have to be here?” I don’t want to be there at 6:30. And he was like, “Yeah, me neither. But guess what? Were going.” Since then, we’ve put our egos aside and created this wonderful experience for everyone. We have respect for that. It’s our family business. It’s not just my dad’s legacy, it’s “That’s what keeps the lights on. If we don’t participate, we’re not hurting anyone except our own family.”

NOAH: The family dynamic that we had at home overlapped a bit at the beginning with the way we did things in the restaurant. But then, as we understood each other’s work ethic and business aspects, we actually managed to bond more. It was nice to know more about my father and my brother.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

AMANUEL: Without my family, I would not have succeeded. I was very demanding with my children. I deprived my children of some of the things they wanted to do with their friends, but deep in my heart I felt this was going to be an opportunity. I wanted to teach my children the work ethic. I’m so lucky that my kids are polite. They listen to what I say, and I listen to what they say. Sometimes I feel like I know it all, but I also learned a lot from them.

I wanted my children to carry the torch. That’s why I formed them, that’s why I have them all around me. In restoration, there is no margin for error. If a customer gets sick, you lose all your reputation. We have checklists that we have to do every day and we have to train our employees. To have a successful restaurant, you need to have a good location, good food, consistency, and good service.

FAVIN: The food scene in general in Tucson has really changed. There are a few Middle Eastern and African fusion restaurants. There is another Ethiopian restaurant which is not related to us or our family, but they are friends of ours so we support them as well. Tucson is a college town, and it’s evolved into something of a foodie scene. But there are only three Ethiopian restaurants in the city, and two of them belong to us.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

The Broadway restaurant has been closed for over a year and a half, but we’re really excited because in fact in this process some businesses have moved away from Broadway and moved out of some of the buildings surrounding Zemam’s. We have started construction on what will be called Z Street. Not only will we be reopening our original restaurant, but there will be some really cool additions. There will be an international themed sports bar where we will show football and cricket matches, and there will be a cafe, food vendors and outdoor seating.

We are working closely with the city to get updates on when construction is going to be done at a point where people can actually access the buildings. So we hope to be able to open our doors and be ready to serve customers before the start of the World Cup this year and to be able to play these games at the sports bar.

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