Ethiopian food is awesome, and it’s one of the more inherently vegan-friendly traditional cuisines out there. But it’s very rare to find a place specifically focussed on the v*gan side of Ethiopian food. Bunna Café does that and much more, with their pop-up events showcasing music, dancing, coffee ceremonies, and booze, as well as good eats. They’ve mostly focussed on North Brooklyn to date, but events elsewhere are certainly a possibility.
Upcoming Bunna Café events include dinners at Tradesman (222 Bushwick Ave, off the Montrose L) on August 26 (this weekend!!), at Alaska Bar (35 Ingraham St, off the Morgan L) on September 2, and at The West (379 Union Ave, off the Lorimer L) on September 8.
The only non-vegan thing they serve is the honey-based Tej wine. But they will be more than happy to hook us up with alternate drinks.
I asked Bunna Café’s Sam Saverance a bunch of questions, and he was good enough to answer them:
SuperVegan: Who’s behind Bunna Café and how did you get started? How long has Bunna Café been going? How long have you been cooking Ethiopian food and/or cooking professionally? Are you Ethiopian yourself?
Sam Saverance: Bunna Café is a three-person team composed of myself, a Texan, and two Ethiopians—Chuny Ali and a third partner who must remain nameless for now because he still has a competing restaurant day job. I am by profession a graphic designer and marketing/branding specialist. For the past four years I have diverged more from production work to branding and promoting African-based companies in order for them to be more successful in the global marketplace.
I spent some time in Ethiopia back in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the cuisine, visuals, and culture, especially in the way that food is considered an integral part of everyday life. My “nameless” partner hails from the Lalibela region, has spent many years managing restaurants and as a tour guide, and studies architecture at school here in NYC. He is extremely knowledgeable and effective in managing an event, and also has excellent taste in creating a memorable experience. We both met randomly a year ago and after chatting soon discovered that we had the same vision of creating a tasteful venue that reflected Ethiopia in a positive, effective way. Chuny joined us earlier this year. She is our master chef – the food she cooks is mind-blowingly tasty. Even the Ethiopians are mesmerized by the flavors she creates. She manages the kitchen and is incredibly efficient at it.
All in all the three of us complement each other to a tee. I work on branding, promoting, and event planning, nameless dude works on the managing of events and service, and Chuny manages the kitchen.
Tell us about your events. What’s a vegan gonna get that they can’t get by going to any old Ethiopian restaurant?
We decided to do vegan Ethiopian for a variety of reasons. First, it is extraordinarily tasty to the point that even a carnivore will forget that there is no meat involved (spoken from the mouths of true unabashed carnivores). Second, vegan Ethiopian is “naturally” vegan, in that you don’t have to substitute any animal product for a vegan option. You are eating a vegan dish that has been crafted and fine-tuned for centuries and is a very sophisticated meal palette-wise. The vegans I have spoken to are very appreciative of this. Thirdly, without meat the whole cooking process is much cleaner in the kitchen and on the shelf.
Other Ethiopian restaurants serve vegan Ethiopian food, but they mostly emphasize the meat dishes and therefore don’t place the same effort to make the vegan dishes palatable. Ours is tastier, heartier, healthier, and extremely colorful (we make a point of this).
Chuny is herself vegetarian so she knows very well how to make the dishes shine through.
Ethiopian cuisine is pretty vegan-friendly in general, right? Am I right that as long as we avoid the honey, everything that seems vegetarian is safe?
Ethiopian cuisine goes two ways—either very meaty or vegan. But yes, in general the veggie dishes are also vegan. Also, it is very close to being gluten-free. We are currently working on an injera recipe that does not use any wheat or other gluten product. The honey is mainly found in Tej—Ethiopian honey wine—so we are careful to point this out to those that consider honey to be non-vegan.
Are there many vegetarians or vegans in Ethiopia?
No. Not especially. Ethiopians love their Tibs (roasted beef). However for religious and lifestyle reasons meat is eaten sparingly. Most Ethiopians avoid pork completely and eat meat only on special occasions. All-in-all the Ethiopian palate is very nutritious.
I love coffee. And I especially love Ethiopian coffee. Coffee seems to be an important part of what you do. Tell us about that, please!
We consider coffee to be part of the aesthetic of our events, so we present it not as a product to sell but a part of the overall entertainment. Wherever we can, we perform the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The roasting of the beans and the entire brewing process adds tremendously to the overall experience. And the final coffee (called “Bunna”) is delicious and has an amazingly intense yet sustaining effect.
What do other Ethiopian restaurants get right and get wrong? (Not asking you to name names, just curious what you do better!)
There are a few Ethiopian restaurants in NYC that I absolutely love. Good food, good atmosphere, savvy owners. But we feel like we are doing something completely different and catering to a different crowd. As a designer and marketer, my focus is to create something that will build a strong brand identity for us and also for Ethiopia and Africa. By doing so we can leverage our brand identity to promote other Ethiopian/African products and create more long-term prosperity for the continent.
We feel the best way to promote ourselves is to use the Ethiopian cuisine and culture in ways that pull it out of the typecast “kitschy” cultural experience and make it just a good experience in a variety of genres and facets. We are working with musicians from a variety of genres to do collaborative events. So far in our dinner parties we’ve had funk, blues, Sudanese acoustic music, and we’ve been talking with bands that range from klezmer to noise rock. Being a “travelling café”, we also gladly leave town. Bottom line is we want to show that Ethiopian cuisine works in a variety of traditional and non-traditional settings.
How close are you to opening a permanent restaurant, and where will it be?
We will definitely be opening a permanent venue, but probably not until early next year. We are looking for a spot in the East Williamsburg/Bushwick area. Until then we will undoubtedly be a presence. We are lining up events for as many weekends as we can muster and will continue to do off-site, travelling events when we have a permanent spot. We have a mailing list that people can get on by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we also promote through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
(all photos courtesy Bunna Café)