In 1980, Aster Keleta arrived in San Diego. It was just three months before the United States began granting Ethiopians refugee status. Seeking citizenship was more arduous, but it allowed her to settle in and be of assistance to other incoming Ethiopians, a passion of hers that has continued on for over 30 years.
Among five siblings, Keleta was the only daughter in her family. Naturally, she worked in the kitchen with her mother preparing traditional Ethiopian meals. The family had a self-sufficient farm, so whatever was on the dinner table grew right in their back yard. With such a fond background in preparing traditional cuisine, Aster avoided the hassle of looking for work by going into business for herself.
In 1982, she opened the first Ethiopian restaurant in San Diego. It was called the Blue Nile and was located on Federal Avenue and 47th Street. Five years later she opened a second location in Pacific Beach.
The Blue Nile became more than a place for people to eat. New arrivals from Ethiopia considered it a gathering place to discuss their needs and to organize. Welcoming these people into her space and helping them became Keleta’s ultimate passion. She left her restaurant to pursue a career in the non-profit world, while at the same time pursuing a master’s degree in education from SDSU. In the past 30 years, Aster has worked for numerous non-profits agencies to aid, educate and develop leadership among the African refugees living in the United States.
With the stability she has gained in her professional career, she recently decided to plunge back into the restaurant business once again. Keleta and her partner Dr. Carrol Waymon are now the new owners of Awash, an Ethiopian restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard at 50th Street. Keleta admits she has missed having the creative freedom of running her own business, which also allows her the opportunity to reconnect with her identity and culture.
Ethiopian cuisine has a unique flavor that keeps people coming back again and again. There’s an astounding variety of fresh vegetables, including cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, collard greens, eggplant, squash, mushrooms, and yams — just to name a few. The foundation of ingredients may sound basic, but there are two key ingredients that are ubiquitous to Ethiopian cuisine: kibbeh and berbere. Kibbeh is an Ethiopian clarified butter flavored with cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and other native spices that provides an unforgettable taste. Berbere is a mix of spiced herbs that includes cumin, chili powder and cardamom — a flavor that is essential to most Ethiopian dishes.
Of course, venturing back into the restaurant business is not just for the sake of money. Keleta has always been more about the social context of owning a restaurant above anything else. She knows firsthand how difficult it is to settle into a new country and gain work experience. As a woman that lives to inspire, her message to her staff and fellow Africans is that if she can make it, they can too.
4979 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego 92105
Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 2:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday ,Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; Closed Monday.