No Knives at the Round Table: Fasika Places Emphasis on Communal Dining
Broadway brimmed with frantic Somerville residents on Friday afternoon. As I ambled down the sidewalk, blurs of frazzled figures raced by me, slush sloshing beneath their boots and coffee spilling out of their Starbucks cups. Everyone had somewhere to go. And fast. But amidst the city’s commotion, quietly blended into the strip of brick Somerville storefronts, is Fasika, an Ethiopian restaurant whose luxurious atmosphere defies fast-paced American culture.
“Everything here in the U.S. is so fast,” said Befekadu Defar, the owner of the restaurant. “In Ethiopia, you can take your time. You don’t have to run.” He added that “in Ethiopia, you eat in a group,” and that unlike in the United States, people always share their food and invite their neighbors to sit down and enjoy cups of coffee with them.
While Ethiopian food proves his obvious specialty, Befekadu’s culinary repertoire is eclectic. Born in Ethiopia, Befakadu received a scholarship as a young adult to attend culinary school in Switzerland, where he learned to cook French cuisine. Upon moving to Boston in 1994, he worked at two American restaurants before opening Fasika with his wife in 2001. He explained that while the majority of his family members now reside in Boston, he returns to Ethiopia each year, where he collects spices to bring back with him to his Somerville kitchen.
As the owner of Fasika, Befekadu holds various responsibilities. “I do everything here,” he laughed. “I do all the cooking, I help the waiters, and I do the shopping.” Despite his diverse and demanding duties, members of his family and of the larger Ethiopian community in Somerville alleviate the burden of managing the restaurant. He described Fasika as a family business, as his wife and sons help him with cooking and bartending. Additionally, he cooperates with the owners of other Ethiopian restaurants in the area when it comes to purchasing items and sharing ingredients. Befekadu explained that he knows the owners of each local Ethiopian restaurant personally. “If I bring back spices from Ethiopia, I share them with the other restaurant owners,” he said.
The emphasis on community extends beyond Befekadu’s management of his restaurant to the dining experience itself. Eating at Fasika requires American customers to leave their culture of individualism at home along with their forks and knives. In the restaurant, guests station themselves around mesabs, circular tables that resemble shallow baskets. The food is served on a large piece of injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread made of teff flour, which is used to pick up the food and absorb its flavorful juices.
The presentation of the traditional dishes encourages sharing. When my friend and I dined at the restaurant, we shared the Vegetarian Combination, a sampler of five traditional dishes, and the Kitfo, minced beef with spicy seasoning. Served neatly along the circumference of the porous bread, the individual portions quickly blended into a splatter-painted masterpiece as we smeared them across the injera palette and up to our own eager palates.
The fusion of lentils, vegetables, ginger, and spices that made up the Vegetable Combination was not only delicious, but also highly nutritious. Fasika is part of the City’s Shape Up Approved – Eat Well program. Both the Vegetable Combination and the Kitfo can be found on the ‘approved’ healthy options menu. Befekadu explained that fulfilling the requirements of Shape Up Approved does not require him to make serious alterations to Fasika’s dishes. “Health is a part of Ethiopian culture,” he said. “We always use lean beef, and we do not have fried food. Even the butter we use is healthy, and we usually use olive oil for cooking.” Ask for a Shape Up Approved – Eat Well menu at all our YUM restaurants!
I am confident that I will be back at Fasika soon to sample the rest of the restaurant’s tasty offerings. The relaxed ambiance provides a refuge from the outside cacophony of car horns, and the communal dining experience encourages guests to indulge in hearty cuisine and conversation.