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The Story Of The Ethiopian Diaspora, In Cake

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Italian specialties like tiramasu have found their way into the cuisine of the Ethiopian diaspora.
Andrea Wenzel
Italian specialties like tiramasu have found their way into the cuisine of the Ethiopian diaspora.

In the D.C. area, many restaurants offer immigrants a taste of home, but as communities adapt to new countries, so do their palates. At one Ethiopian cafe in Northern Virginia, that dynamic is playing out every day.

You can almost see the Pentagon from Dama Café in Arlington, Va., but when you walk inside around lunchtime, you could be in a café in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It's crowded, and Ethiopians sit around small tables talking and enjoying a taste of home.

Patrons there are eating Italian specialties like macchiato and fruit cake. Such Italian fare has been part of Ethiopian cuisine since the Italian occupation in the 1930s. They were only in Ethiopia for five years, but in that short time, they left behind a good many things, including espresso, macchiato, cakes and an idea as to how to enjoy them.

Samson Teferra, who's enjoying a macchiato and a piece of fruit cake, says he comes to Dama Café two or three times a week.

"It pretty much reminds me of my childhood," says Teferra. "We used to go to pastry shop with my parents, and that tradition pretty much continued again. I bring my kids here; they love the cake. It's a wonderful place."

Almaz Dama, the bakery's pastry chef, is famous in the Washington D.C. Ethiopian community. Baking runs in her family; back in Ethiopia, her father, the late Dama Nademo, baked bread for the Ethiopian Air Force.

When Almaz Dama came to the U.S., she studied nutrition at Howard University. This gave her new ideas, like cakes for diabetics and cakes that are gluten free. She even started making vegan cakes, because Ethiopian Orthodox Christians have to abstain from animal products for almost 200 days of the year.

"Most of our customers are Ethiopians, so we have to adjust the cakes the cookies and all the pastries to our own taste," she says.

This means using less sugar and less cream. Sometimes, her exclusive pastry menu also includes tef — a slightly sour tasting flour used to make injera bread.

The way Ethiopians in America eat cake has been changing too. Cake is now a normal thing for many special occasions, like birthday parties. When Ethiopian-American kids hear the birthday song, in English or Amharic, they expect to see cake. For them, it is not a luxury item like it once was.

Here in the diaspora, they are part of a new chapter in the history of cake. Almaz will no doubt be adapting new recipes for them.

You can hear more about global and local food issues on WAMU's global affairs series Latitudes Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. and this Sunday evening at 6 p.m.

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