In Ethiopian cuisine, love is intrinsically linked to food; it’s an ingredient included and shown whether through cooking, family or prayer. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles commune around a dinner table, eager for the meal prepared before them. There will be the passing of plates, the ripping of bread, the scooping of food, and even the feeding of one another. The name for this act of familiarity is gursha. Shown by tearing a strip of injera, filling it with wot, and placing it into a friend or family member’s mouth, this gesture is symbolic of your bond. You are nourishing the other, through food and action.
Located in the Mercado la Paloma—an incubator for first-time business and non-profit owners run by Esperanza Community Housing—on South Grand Avenue, Azla Vegan is symbolic of its matriarchal namesake’s love for and devotion to her family. It’s symbolic of her youngest daughter's, Nesanet’s, passion for integrating community, health and culture together. Before opening in 2013, “My mom was actually retired in Ethiopia,” Nesanet tells me. You see, Azla immigrated to the United States—twice. Once to raise a family, and then to return to family.
Azla Vegan serves exclusively dairy- and meat-free Ethiopian fare. When one walks up to the heavy wood counter, a framed photo of Azla and Nesanet adorns a shelf overlooking the food and customers—an idol in its sacred space. And if you peek inside the window to the kitchen, you’ll see Azla busy at work preparing the day’s injera; made of just teff and water, it’s a naturally gluten-free flatbread used in place of a utensil.
Omitting meat options, Azla’s menu focuses on the rice and lentil side of the traditional cuisine. You’ll choose a base of injera or brown rice, and then wot and salad entrees. All sides are meant to be deliciously mixed and matched and enjoyed together.
“We’re not here to preach the gospel of veganism,” Nesanet tells me. She guesstimates about 90-percent of their customer base isn’t even vegetarian. Azla Vegan is trying to provide healthy options for the local community—with hopes of expanding soon. “I believe ancient cultures—even those that had meat in their diets—understood nutrition and understood whole foods,” she explains to me. “This is not something new. Hipsters didn’t invent this approach to eating.”
Growing up, Azla’s children weren’t raised vegetarian, although the majority of their diet was. It consisted of lentils, greens, fresh fruits and vegetables. “The Ethiopian diet, in general, tends to be on the healthier side,” says Nesanet. But the catalyst for committing to a meat-free diet happened around the time Nesanet went to college at Stanford. “We all became vegetarian for different reasons,” she tells me of her siblings—all six of them—individually adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet. “My oldest brother was the pioneer.”
So Azla had to modify dishes since several of her children no longer consumed dairy, let alone meat. “She learned. She adjusted,” Nesanet explains. “In the Ethiopian orthodox faith, which is what our family’s religion is, there are lots of fasting periods. With Lent, it’s 55 days. And every Wednesday and Friday you do a vegan diet. And there are all these smaller fasting periods, so it ends up being something like 200 days out of the year you’re on a vegan diet.”
Nesanet’s family first immigrated to the United States in 1982 where they landed in Phoenix before settling in San Jose, California, for two years. But ultimately, Nesanet and her siblings grew up in the Central California agricultural community of Bakersfield. “My dad really wanted to find a small town for us,” Nesanet tells me. “He literally got in his car and drove south from San Jose and landed in Bakersfield.” He got back in his Station Wagon, drove back up to the Bay Area, and packed up his family to move. These days, most of their family resides in Los Angeles.
When Azla first retired in 2002, Nesanet’s sister, who was an attorney at the time, saved up enough money to buy her parents a home in Ethiopia. And when Azla came back to visit in 2012, she told her kids, “This whole retirement thing is boring. I’m still young.” She confessed it was always her dream to open a restaurant. With Nesanet’s background in wellness—she was a science teacher and taught health in South Central L.A., spent time as a school administrator, and also became a certified yoga teacher—it made perfect sense that they actualize this dream together. Nesanet admits her career path has been “all over the place.” She also worked in entertainment and managed her sister’s law practice, “But through all of those things, I always maintained this real love for food. I think something my mother instilled in me was this idea of food as a way to share love, and to really nurture a community and build community,” she says.
After toying around with ideas, what came to mind was Azla’s dinner table. “In Bakersfield growing up, on Sundays she would make this huge meal. All my cousins would come over. The neighbors would come over. And they’d ask, ‘What’s on the menu today?’” Nesanet says. They decided to recreate and extend that family experience.
Nesanet’s favorite dishes were always the spicy lentils and collard greens. “That’s why we’re so passionate. We feel like Ethiopian food is such a great way for people to explore plant-based foods because you’re not missing anything there,” she says. “There’s texture, there’s spice, there’s flavor, there’s variety. So for us, it wasn’t a huge deal.”
Much of the menu consists of variations of traditional recipes Azla has been making since she was young in Northern Ethiopia. But the salads and drinks are influenced by living in Southern California; for example, quinoa has also been added to several of their dishes to make them more nutrient rich. In fact, the menu is influenced by many cultures, including the Rastafarian culture that Nesanet’s oldest brother adopted, not to mention the local Latino culture. “We really like being at the market because we can play with that a bit,” Nesanet says. It’s a community-driven market whose walls are lined in educational and political signage, and where you’ll find Mexican and Thai food cohabitating alongside independently owned shops and non-profits primarily run by immigrants.
At Mercado la Paloma, you’re surrounded by the University of Southern California, South Central L.A. and Downtown L.A. “[Our demographic] is all over the map. We didn’t know what to expect,” Nesanet says. And they’ve been busy since day one. The mother-daughter duo didn’t fully anticipate how much people wanted this healthy option they were providing.
“People were really excited to see a healthy option that had that ethnic flair to it. It wasn’t just faux meats. This comes from our tradition,” Nesanet says. On any given day, they might hear a, “This reminds me of a dish my mom used to make,” as the photo of Azla and Nesanet lovingly watches from above—a black-and-white-testament to the care put into the food they serve.
“I really do feel like food is this window to really build these interesting intersections,” Nesanet says. You might feed anyone of any ethnicity, diet, or socioeconomic background at the Mercado la Paloma. Food is a unifier, bringing us all together.
Alicia Cho is a photographer based in Los Angeles and San Francisco. While living in Paris for a year, she first discovered the true joy of experiencing and savoring each day with every sip, bite, conversation, and stroll through the city. It was there that her passion for food, cafe culture, and photography was born.