Lifelong foodies Eliza Richman and Xavier Curtis are the co-founders of Addis Eats, a company that offers food tours of Ethiopia, to merge their passion for travel and food. The DC natives turned Addis ex-pats take visitors off the beaten path to showcase some of Addis’ finest hidden treasures. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Eliza about the guts, gumption, and gourmandise behind Addis Eats’ innovative business model.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I was raised by an Ethiopian nanny in Washington, DC from when I was two months old until I started university. She is my second mother, so when I graduated I decided to move to Ethiopia to live with her and find work here. That was three years ago!
Both Xavier (co-founder) and I grew up in Washington, DC. We both independently went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where we met. I studied International Studies and Environmental Studies and Xavier studied Political Science and Environmental Studies.
We have both been involved in food since we were teenagers. Xavier has worked in restaurants since he was fifteen and on small CSA (community supported agriculture) farms since his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. He was also very involved in the University’s Slow Food movement.
Similarly, I have worked in restaurants since I was seventeen but cultivated my real connection to food from travel with my family. We always traveled on our stomachs and I grew to love food from an early age.
Before starting AddisEats, my business partner, Xavier co-founded the Yaya Girls, an NGO that empowers young Ethiopian women through running and vocational skills. I worked with an international wildlife conservation NGO in Ethiopia that focused on ecotourism for two years before starting Addis Eats.
Where did you get the idea to start Addis Eats?
Xavier and I spent most of our free time in Addis exploring local restaurants. We would tell our friends about the great restaurants and food we had discovered and eventually found ourselves leading mini impromptu food tours with our friends on the weekends.
Our expertise in local cuisine eventually led to us being the go-to people when our friends had guests visiting. Ethiopian food is so popular outside of Ethiopia, but you have to know the right places to eat to avoid getting sick. We found we could easily provide that service and we had so much fun doing it.
How does Addis Eats differ from the traditional tourist experience in Ethiopia?
Tourism is relatively new in Ethiopia and most tourists visit through large tour companies. We’re able to provide really intimate tours where people get a chance to interact with the locals. Our tours take place in neighborhoods that tourists wouldn’t otherwise visit, so it gives them a true taste of Addis.
We also visit markets (and other places) that tour operators don’t. For example, our Hardcore Early Morning Market Tour visits the Piazza fruit and vegetable market before sunrise. No one can believe we take tourists there. Without fail vendors always ask why we are there and why we don’t just buy our produce from a supermarket. When we tell them that the market is beautiful and our guests love to see it; they are always awestruck and appreciative.
How have you developed a relationship with the restaurant owners and vendors through the tours?
We frequented all of the restaurants we visit on the food tour before we came up with the concept. We visit these restaurants on the food tour because they make great food and we love the people who work there. We see them anywhere from two to six times a week and have been visiting them for the last one and half years. They love to see foreigners appreciating their food.
We’ve cultivated great relationships with the owners and wait staff and spend time with them at the restaurants when we aren’t leading tours. We just can’t stay away!
We’ve recently added a visit to a corrugated tin hut where a young woman makes injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread. At first, she was shy when we visited, but now she invites the guests to try their hand at making the injera themselves.
What are some traditional Ethiopian dishes that every person should try?
The most cherished dish in Ethiopia is ‘doro wot’ – a spicy chicken stew. However, it is quite hard to find this dish in restaurants as it takes a lot of careful preparation and most people only trust their grandmother or mother to make it. So, you should try and get yourself invited to someone’s home to try it!
We also love ‘gomen be siga’ which is collared greens stewed with butter and beef. We like this dish, besides the fact that it is delicious, because it lacks the typical berbere spice found in most Ethiopian dishes.
Another favorite is ‘kitfo’ – Ethiopian beef tartar. Beef is chopped very finely until it almost becomes a paste. It is then warmed in spiced butter and served with local cheese and drenched in melted butter. You have to make sure to eat kitfo from a trusted restaurant and never on a Wednesday or Friday (when the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians eat vegan) because meat won’t be fresh.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, and during the Christmas and Easter vegan fasting seasons, ‘beyaynetu’ takes the place of meat dishes. ‘Beyaynetu’ is a vegan platter that differs at every restaurant but you’ll usually find spicy lentils, carrots and green beans, potatoes, beets, and much more!
How good are you both at whipping up your own Ethiopian dishes?
Not very! Most Ethiopian dishes take a lot of preparation and it is quite hard to convince yourself to spend the time when you could just pop downstairs and eat great food for a couple dollars.
Why do you think that Ethiopian cuisine is the African cuisine that is most familiar to Western audiences? Why do you think the world lacks the same familiarity with Nigerian or Kenyan food, for example?
I’m really not sure. Ethiopians are incredibly proud people and food is a huge part of their culture. They are well known for their unbelievable hospitality, which inevitably entails overfeeding you. You could say they are ‘food-pushers’ and this may have something to do with it.
Now you’re expanding to include day tours and city tours. What do those entail and what’s next on the horizon?
Our day and overnight trips visit Debre Zeit (also known as Bishoftu), a city 50 km from Addis Ababa known for it’s beautiful crater lakes. We spend the day at a favorite rustic lodge of ours overlooking a beautiful lake, where the owner cooks up fresh food – she doesn’t buy her ingredients for the day until she takes your order.
Our city tours are unique because we take guests by minibus, which is the local public transportation in Addis, an adventure and attraction in its own right. It’s undoubtedly the best way to get to know the city and its people! The tours are fully catered to what our guests are interested in seeing, but the usual stops are: Merkato, National Museum, and the Holy Trinity Cathedral. For those less interested in museums, we visit the Shiro Meda textile market and souvenir shops at the historic Post Office. We also stop for a traditional Ethiopian lunch and, of course, coffee.
In the future we’d love to be able to offer cooking classes and eventually start food tours in other cities in Africa!