Transcending Taste Asian Businesses Strengthening Ties

The Ethiopian-Chinese partnership has developed substantially over the past three decades. Ethiopia is a central hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 150 countries as part of the centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. Over 300,000 Chinese immigrants are thought to be living in Ethiopia, creating a niche market for Chinese food. The phenomenon has led to the thriving Rwanda Market, where dozens of stores cater to their customers with a focus on Chinese ingredients. More and more Chinese restaurants are springing up throughout Addis Ababa as well, offering a new kind of cuisine to an increasingly curious
Due to the nations’ economic cooperation, Over 300,000 Chinese immigrants are thought to be living in Ethiopia, creating a niche market for the consumption of Chinese food and turning the former Rwanda Market into the only urban food market in Addis Ababa that focuses on Chinese items. Due to the close economic ties with China and other Asian nations, in addition to the open-air China market, many restaurants have sprung up throughout Addis Ababa offering a variety of Chinese dishes to fellow Chinese expatriates as well as a growing number of Far East Asian cuisine fans, altering the city’s food landscape, writes EBR’s Bamlak Fekadu.

A few hundred meters of wandering through cobblestone alleyways near the Japanese Embassy, just off Zimbabwe Street in Bole District, will lead to what is perhaps one of Addis Ababa’s most unique sights. Nestled behind the busy Africa Avenue lies China Market, a large niche market designed to serve Asian expatriate consumers. It is smoothly organized, comparable to other markets, with rows of stores arranged and connected to the main street by access roads.

The market’s stores sit in the shade of tall, sturdy buildings and are easily identifiable by their “reddish” theme and commercial banners written in Mandarin – a language with over 4,000 characters.

The market manifests that vendors have actively adapted to the needs of the immigrant community and expanded their food value chain. Through daily interactions between the local business network and Chinese food consumers, convivial relations are evolving in and beyond the market.

Mandarin is the market lingua franca that most people, including customers, merchants, and laborers, use as their primary means of communication when negotiating deals. At a  retail store, Solomon W. Gerima is among those assisting customers in communicating in Mandarin. Solomon and his colleagues did not attend language schools to learn Mandarin.

“We learned Chinese through experience because we had no choice but to serve Chinese customers, the majority of whom couldn’t speak English,” he explained.

He was loading groceries into Liu Cheng’s car. Liu is a Chinese expat who works for a construction company as an electrical engineer. As Solomon was loading, Liu was drinking coffee in a small tented coffee shop. He moved to Addis Ababa with his wife, who works at the Ethiopian Investment Commission, four years ago.

He goes to the market once or twice a month  to buy household items.

“While the market provides convenience for expats, the skyrocketing inflation of food prices poses a challenge,” Liu told EBR. “The government should assess the impact of the devaluation of the local currency against foreign currency since the country is a major importer of food items such as edible oil and canned foods.”

Solomon observes that the large variety of products available in the market attract consumers from as far as 35 kilometers away. Asian expatriates, such as Indian and Korean nationals as well as Middle Easterners, regularly visit to do their shopping as the products on offer are often unavailable anywhere else. The shops in the market are stocked with vegetables, packaged or canned foods, poultry products (including chicken heads and feet), as well as live fish.

The China Market is unique in that it provides a migrant community with access to a local business network. Local vendors are generally tied to an overseas business network because some of the food items cannot be acquired locally and must instead be imported to satisfy the needs of the expat population.

However, some agricultural products and poultry products are obtained from local farms, and the recently imposed ban on the import of food items has affected the market hugely. Due to the ban, ingredients for both households and restaurants have become scarce. Inputs like light soy and dark soy have become so scarce that their prices have spiked by over 50 Pct to ETB 1,800 in recent days, according to Solomon.

Specialty restaurants, which often exclusively serve foreign dishes and usually conform to high-end international standards, were dominated by Italian cuisine.

The history of high-end restaurants in the capital dates back to the 1950s, when the Castelli family, who were involved in the catering business in Piedmont, Italy, opened Ristorante Castelli in 1957. It was opened because there were many Italians who came to the country during the invasion and occupation in 1935 but stayed after the colonization attempt failed in 1940, engaging in different business activities. Well-known individuals like Bob Geldof, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie, as well as high-ranking statesmen and dignitaries, have all dined at this high-end restaurant.

Recent years have seen Far Eastern eateries proliferate. There are over 130 foreign restaurants registered under the Addis Ababa Culture & Tourism Bureau. These restaurants are concentrated in the Bole, Kirkos, and Yeka Districts. Close to 50 of them are dedicated to serving Asian cuisine, particularly Chinese and Korean food.

More and more locals are regularly eating out at these spots, reversing a not-so-old notion that Asian kitchens produced foods that were “taboo” to Ethiopian culture. Rediet Mekete, the proprietor of the popular Little China food chain, has witnessed the growing acceptance of Far Eastern cuisine firsthand.

Rediet opened her Chinese restaurant six years ago, and has since opened five more branches spread across Addis Ababa. The Little China chain is considered a pioneering local establishment and boasts good ratings on travel platforms.

Rediet realized her ambitions of opening a Chinese restaurant following her travels to central China’s Hunan Province, where she discovered some shared traits between the local dishes and Ethiopian food. She saw that the cuisines shared a proclivity for spice, and enjoyed the cooking. Not long after, she was back in Hunan to learn how to cook Chinese food.

“I found the dishes very tasty the first time I went to China,” Rediet says. “I learned about Chinese food catering from my Chinese friends who own restaurants there.”

Considering the similarity of taste, as some Chinese foods are spicy and salty, she was sure that Ethiopians would like it. Her plan was to provide local and other customers with affordable Chinese dishes.

“I started serving dishes for as little as ETB 60,” she said. “Recently, the price of a dish is affordable for the middle class, ranging from the lowest ETB 90 to ETB 450.”

With the number of local customers increasing over time, Little China Restaurant offers up to 30 varieties of Chinese dishes across its six branches.

Asian cuisine is famous for its use of spices with a kick in its regular meals.Other, more subtle ingredients are common in Chinese, Korean and Japanese cooking as well. These include ginger, tofu, garlic, sesame seeds, and soy.

In fact, Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, and Japan, are major export destinations for Ethiopia’s oilseed products, which are the basic ingredients for their meals. Oilseed exports generate on average 20 Pct of total agricultural exports. China is a major destination for Ethiopia’s sesame and soy exports, accounting for 70 Pct of all sesame seeds shipped out.

“In my opinion, the adoption of Chinese cuisine is encouraged by increased spending power as a result of the country’s rapid economic growth, followed by an increasing number of middle-class travelers who are spreading awareness and the youths’ interaction with globalization through social media, movies, and the like,” said Rediet.

According to World Bank data, Ethiopians’ annual GDP per capita income in 2021 was USD 960, a 0.8 Pct increase from the 2020 figure, despite the impact of COVID-19 and the northern conflict.

Others have noticed the opportunities presented by the growing spending power and the similarities between local and Asian cuisines, too. An example is the Chanoly Noodles chain, which has more than 100 locations.

Noodles are essential dishes that are popular in China and Korea. Fermented foods like kimchi – a Korean staple made up of cabbage and other vegetables – are also popular.  Chanoly’s version of these foods are quite good, according to review websites such as TripAdvisor. However, there are some aspects of the restaurant chain that its customers would like to see improve.

“Chanoly’s food tastes fantastic, but it’s difficult to call the prices fair,” Sophia Agazi, a Unity University undergraduate marketing student, told EBR. “I prefer sizzling over noodles, but the prices are close to ETB 600, which is prohibitively expensive.”

The menu at Chanoly is divided into five sections: noodles, rice, sizzling dishes, common dishes, and salads. Prices vary between ETB 295 for a fish salad, to ETB 575 for sizzling chicken.

Furthermore,  high-end Asian restaurants such as Four Seasons, an Asian fusion establishment at the Union Hotel on Ras Damtew Street in front of the African Union headquarters, are known for serving Japanese, Thai, and Pakistani dishes, in addition to Korean restaurants such as Rainbow and Arrirang, which are gaining popularity among urbanites.

Arrirang was founded in 2009 and is named after a Korean folk song that is sometimes regarded as the unofficial anthem of the two Koreas’ unity. Located near the old airport, this Korean restaurant is usually frequented by expats, but in recent times, local residents have begun to dine there.

The restaurant’s menu is split into appetizers and vegetables, rice, stew noodles, beef, chicken, fish, pork, and Korean specialties, with prices ranging from ETB 177 to ETB 1,861.

Ethiopia’s food and beverage market is expected to grow rapidly over the near future due to rising disposable incomes, changing trends, and product innovations. On the other hand, stringent government regulations and fluctuating raw material prices can have a negative impact on market growth.

According to Statista, a market analysis and research platform, the food segment is projected to reach USD 160 million in 2023, coupled with 28 Pct annual growth.

The increasing number of restaurants, fast-food chains, and food delivery apps such as Z-Mall and Deliver Addis, enhance availability to consumers, resulting in strong growth in the food and beverage industry. Besides, rising demand for organic, natural, and fresh foods among consumers due to rising health awareness is a major factor expected to enhance the demand for the food and beverage market.

The future looks promising for Asian cuisine in Addis Ababa as locals get further acquainted with the flavor-packed dishes produced by an ever-increasing number of Far Eastern restaurants. The market where Solomon and his peers make a living also stands to benefit from the growing popularity of Asian cooking given the problems posed by runaway inflation do not spoil the prospects. EBR

11th Year • Jan 2023 • No. 114


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