Having lived in Detroit for almost 20 years after immigrating from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as a teenager, Helina Melaku noticed a cultural gap in the Blackest big city in America.
To her, too many Detroiters appear to be disconnected from their own cultural roots. Very few African restaurants populated the city’s landscape until recently, and Ethiopian options have been limited to a couple stalwart spots in the northern suburbs.
“I want to bring Black people back to their ancestral palates,” Melaku explains.
Having grown up with a love for cooking instilled by her elders and realizing food’s power to educate and connect, Melaku in 2020 launched Konjo Me, an authentic Ethiopian food pop-up and coffee brand with the goal of bridging that cultural gap.
Authenticity is a driving force for her efforts with Konjo Me. To that end, Melaku painstakingly sources all of her spices — including the complex blend of berbere — straight from her homeland, where they are still processed traditionally, dried by the sun, and given the care they deserve. Ethiopian cuisine takes a lot of patience and time, as evidenced by the two-day ferment for injera, a sourdough-based flatbread made of teff flour that’s used as the primary eating utensil. Melaku calls injera “the glue of Ethiopian cuisine.” She distributes illustrated cards at her pop-ups that demonstrate how to eat with it, the traditional way.
“Ethiopian food is all about coming together, and love, and sharing food,” she says. “Culturally, we eat from the same plate. That symbolizes love and togetherness. You never see anyone eating alone (in Ethiopia). We share what we have with others and we eat with our hands, which is all about the energy connection with the food you’re eating.”
For Melaku, Konjo Me is also a form of self-love. “Konjo” means “beautiful” in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, so Konjo Me is all about “embracing your inner, true self and your inner beauty.”
“I want people to acknowledge that Ethiopia is a very beautiful country where we speak our own language,” she says. “We have our own calendar, our own music, our own alphabet, our own cuisine. It’s a whole different world.”
Follow Konjo Me on Instagram @konjo.me and visit konjome.com for more info.