Cultural Experience

By Yeamrot Taddese

Banchi Kinde excuses herself from a table to greet an Ethiopian Orthodox priest who just walked into her restaurant. He crosses her face three times with a wooden cross and she bows to accept his blessing.

An elderly woman walks out of the kitchen with a fresh, furiously smoky pan of roasted coffee beans.

Guests enjoying injera and wot dinner at Rendezvous Ethiopian restaurant throw out their arms to wave the aromatic smell to their tables.

Kinde returns to her seat, apologizing for frequent, but clearly, welcome interruptions.

“Walking into an Ethiopian restaurant is a challenge for many people,” she said. She looked at guests tearing injera, thin pita-like bread, with their fingers from a shared platter. They use the piece to scoop some wot or stew and gobble up the bite-size roll.

“When you eat with your hands, it creates an attachment with yourself,” said a soft-spoken but firm Kinde. “That’s why Ethiopian food makes you fall in love with yourself.”

It’s a bold statement, but one Kinde strongly believes in. The key to getting customers to come back for more, she said, is to explain the Ethiopian culture of eating, like gursha – putting a piece of injera and wot into a friend’s mouth.

“It’s an intimate thing,” she said. “Once they [customers] find out [about gursha] next time they want to bring their wives or someone else.”

Kinde mentioned a recent episode of The Simpsons in which Marge goes adventurous and orders “the craziest thing” on the menu for her and her children in an Ethiopian restaurant. After finding out about gursha, the kids could not stop stuffing food into each other’s mouths even after they went home.

Breaking the barrier utensils create and introducing Ethiopian food as bonding experience makes peoplewant to come back for more, Kinde said.

“The commercial is already made. They [customers] are all yours.”

Although hospitality is a generic rule for restaurants, Kinde says it’s one of the qualities of Ethiopian culture her restaurant takes advantage of.

“When people go to Ethiopia and come back, the first thing they talk about is about our hospitality, not really the food,” she said.

“When they come back here, they expect the same treatment.”

In a growingly diet-conscious society, the large selection of vegetarian dishes in the Ethiopian palette also drives business to Rendezvous, Kinde added. But despite the spice-intolerance nature of many non-Ethiopians, Kinde believes it’s important to retain the original ingredients.

“The way Ethiopians eat it is the way it’s served,” she said, adding that Ethiopian food has many dishes that are not spicy. “Watering down” the spicy dishes compromises authenticity, she stated with conviction.

Authenticity is something Jay Yoo, the operations manager at Nami Japanese restaurant, also values.

From the food to décor and staff uniform, Japanese culture is “imbedded in the whole restaurant,” he said.

“A lot of Japanese restaurants are actually Korean- or Chinese-owned. At Nami, 99 per cent of staff speak Japanese…our head chef is from Japan.”

Authenticity at Nami is also seen in how the staff do their job, Yoo added.

“There’s a strong sense of team work [among the staff], which is very Japanese,” he said.

Most of these staff, he stated, have worked at Nami for a very long time and keep the 25-year-old restaurant’s food and service consistent.

“We haven’t been in business this long because of a one-hit wonder thing,” he affirmed. “We try to make the dining experience consistent. Every time people come, they know what they’re getting.”

The wait staff at Nami are dressed in traditional Japanese kimono, something Adam Waxman, a food writer at DINE Magazine who has eaten around the world, believes adds to the dining experience.

“If you go to a Japanese restaurant where the waiters are wearing kimono and another one where they are wearing black pants and shirts, how you relate to your waiter is different,” he said.

But authenticity in clothing, and especially food, is something only those who know about the culture in question can recognize, he declared. Authentic food, Waxman added, can make one restaurant better than another but that it’s not something people think of when they’re hungry.

“The motivation for going out for dinner is often determined by hunger,” he said. “You’re eating for fuel. “If you want to have a quick lunch, who cares about authenticity?”

He added that people often settle for “authentic enough” but rarely accept bad service or little value for money.

Many ethnic restaurants in Toronto, Waxman noted, alter original recipes either because the ingredients are not available or because they want to cater to what they believe Canadians find delicious.

Berber Moroccan restaurant assistant manager Medhat Lotify agrees. Owned by Italians “who love Moroccan culture,” a first glimpse at the downtown restaurant prepares its patrons for a true Mediterranean experience as far ambiance and entertainment are concerned.

The tent ceilings, dim lighting and red cushions on bench sofa seats give a feel of a different world. Belly dancers move around the restaurant ringing shimmy sounds of North Africa. But when it comes to the food, Lotify said local touches are a must.

“You can’t do everything Moroccan,” he said shaking his head. “You have to add North Americanelements to suit [Canadian taste].”

“Moroccan food can be very sweet and buttery,” Lotify said, adding that it could be hard to savour for those who don’t have the acquired taste.

The same goes for drinks. While Berber brings Moroccan wine, it also has wines from other parts of the world because guests have their preferences.

Even when changes are made to accommodate local needs, there are problems. After eating braised lamb with prune sauce for dinner, customers call to complain about stomach problems.

“It’s not a problem with the food,” Lotify chuckled, adding that prune is simply a natural laxative.

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