May 18, 2016

Globally Loved Drinks Now Locally Known : A Story of Hibiscus and Moringa

“The Farmer’s Market, as always, was busy on a Saturday morning. The tastes and smells
surrounded me, with a host of different foods; from freshly made doughnuts to crunchy
samosas baked that morning. I was amazed as I took the sights in, and I followed the aromas
as I explored the surrounding foodscape. And, then I saw it. I was filled with so much
excitement and great memories. I saw Zobo, a drink made out of Hibiscus flowers that had
become a luxury since my move here. In Canada, I have only been able to enjoy Zobo when
someone brings the Hibiscus flowers from Nigeria. Now I can get this drink right here in Canada.”
~ Olaitan Ogunnote

Melku’s warmth permeates her store as she welcomes us on a bright, sunny afternoon in November. Her zest, or laza, for the work she does truly radiates her store’s meaning as she leads us on a tour of Laza Catering. The bold art works and woven baskets hang proudly on her walls, and pay homage to her rich Ethiopian and Eritrean roots. The spice blends grace her store as they silently tell a story of the diverse and cultural foods they help create. Foods on display temptingly awaken our taste buds, water our mouths, and provoke a growling in our stomachs. Melku opened her business in 2009, with the goal of sharing the traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean food from her homeland with us here in Guelph. As Maya Angelou once said, “Eating is so intimate. It's very sensual. When you invite someone to sit at your table and you want to cook for them, you're inviting a person into your life.” This honour describes how we feel as Melku invites us to sit in her store, and begins to tell us the story of her life’s work. She walks us into the kitchen, and shows us where she makes her injera out of teff; a well loved product she sells. She offers us some of the injera along with a spice rich veggie sauce, that the injera readily soaks up.

We sit down by a sunny window and chat with Melku, as she tells us the story about her work to bring  traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean foods and drinks to Guelph. She offers us a homemade hibiscus tea she recently bottled. The tea is a deep burgundy colour that demands our attention, and the taste is flavourful with a melodious mix of her secret spice blend, local honey, and steeped hibiscus flowers. A true entrepreneur, Melku seeks reliable sources for the hibiscus flowers, as the flowers are difficult to grow in Canada. Melku sources her hibiscus flowers from Africa and Asia.

Melku’s customer base is culturally diverse. Melku mentions that her target audience is not Ethiopians or Eritreans, as they know how to make the same food at home.  That being said, when Ethiopians or Eritreans see the Hibiscus drink, they show an immense sense of pride and joy. Also, this is not only true for them, but for people here from many different regions around the world. As James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” That is very much true of this globally loved drink, the drink is known as; karkade (in Egypt , Sudan, and other countries), Sobolo (in Ghana), Zobo (in Nigeria), Agua de Jamaica (in Latin America), Gudhal (in India), Roselle (in Australia), and Sorrel (in some Caribbean countries). We savour the tea and Melku tells us about the many health benefits of this drink, such as preventing illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and lowering high blood pressure. No wonder it’s so well cherished.

As our conversation continues, Melku passes us a brown paper bag, and tell us to smell inside. We look in it and see a dull green powder. We take a big whiff of it, and smell absolutely nothing! Although the green powder is rather unimpressive at first, our opinion quickly changes. She explains to us that the moringa plant is packed with vitamins, antioxidants, and protein, giving it great healing power.

The miracle of tree, as the moringa plant is fondly called, is highly versatile in its uses. Its powdered form can be consumed as a tea, mixed in a smoothie, or sprinkled over a salad at dinner time. Standing tall on the table is Melku’s bottle of moringa tea. As Melku takes a sip of it, she tells us how she drinks the tea every morning before breakfast and every afternoon. Back in Eritrea, the government has greatly increased the popularity of this drink by launching a campaign offering free moringa plants to all citizens. Following the footsteps of the Eritrean government, Melku also wants to make moringa more accessible right here in Guelph. Though moringa is offered in some health food stores at a higher price, Melku aims to sell her moringa more affordably while sourcing directly from the farmers in Ethiopia and Eritrea. She has just begun to sell this product.

Looking ahead, the hope is that many more people in Guelph will come to know and love these healthy drinks. So why not try something new? Take a stroll down to Melku’s booth at the Farmers Market in downtown Guelph on a Saturday morning, or go pay her a visit at her store Laza catering at 74 Ontario Street.

 Samuel Dent & Olaitan Ogunnote, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph
Visit Laza Catering online for more information

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