Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ethiopian cooking instructor
(She’s been in Japan since May 1998)
My Eyes Tokyo brings you interviews with teachers from “Niki’s Kitchen“. It’s a cooking school in which foreigners teach their homeland dishes to Japanese people.
The memorable 10th interviewee is Rose Ohashi, an iron chef from Ethiopia. She’s been here in Japan for 14 years so speaks Japanese very fluently. She smiles warmly and jokes like “When I was asked where I’m from, I answered that I came from Tobu-Nerima (Where her house is located)!”. Rose is such a friendly teacher who joined Niki’s Kitchen recently.
She says nothing matters more to her class than having leisurely talks with students. The menu of this day was “Ethiopian cuisine which you can whip up” so Rose and her students cooked them. Then they enjoyed meals and shared cups of coffee in a relaxed manner. We felt that the atmosphere of her class is a little bit different from the one of other classes. Other instructors seem to create an atmosphere by themselves (*based on our impression), but this friendly and genial woman seemed to enjoy setting the tone for the class with her students.
Ethiopian dishes that go best with rice?
Some of my students who come to my class are interested in Ethiopian cuisine or African cuisine originally, and other students are interested in spices. Also there are people who join my class because they love coffee. Thankfully I have many repeat students. They say that it’s fun to learn about my home cooking which they can rarely experience in their daily lives and an Ethiopian’s viewpoint on Japan while talking. I was told, “I’m thankful that Ms. Rose came to Japan!” I also really want to say thank you for that.
On the other hand, I feel that many people still have a distorted image of Africa. It may be because of the media. People see a quite distinctive cuisine of African tribes and they believe that’s exactly what African cuisine is.
But as for today’s menu, one of my students said that it would go well even with rice. I cooked it using ingredients that are available in Japan. There are many Ethiopian goodies which are acceptable to Japanese taste buds.
“I’m happy to be alive!”
I started teaching at Niki’s Kitchen after I met Latonya (Niki’s instructor from Mississippi, USA) who lives in my neighborhood. We met each other six years ago. My daughter said hi to her and we became friends.
When she came to my house, she had my Ethiopian dishes and said, “You have talent for cooking, so why don’t you teach cooking at Niki’s Kitchen?” She told me that it’s a cooking school in which instructors teach cooking at their houses. I wanted to work at home, so I was really interested in the school.
I’m originally confident in cooking. In my country, we learn how to cook from our parents in our childhood. I am the youngest child in the family and the youngest has to do a lot of housework. I learned how to cook from my mother when I was 7 or 8 and I was responsible for cooking for my whole family when I was around 10.
Also when I eat out, I try to recreate the restaurants’ tastes at home. I like to cook that much.
Yet, it would be lying if I said there was no anxiety about teaching at Niki’s. Firstly, I’m not a native English speaker. I believed that I had to teach in English.
And my biggest fear – Does Ethiopian cuisine meet the tastes of Japanese?
Students spend time and money to come all the way here in order to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine. I didn’t know how to please them, how to entertain them or how to plan the menu… I asked Latonya about a lot of stuff.
I saw what she was doing and wondered if I could teach like her. But she said confidently, “Yes, you can!”. So I asked her to introduce me to the school. Then I met Niki san (Naoko Tanase *representative of Niki’s Kitchen). It was around last November.
Niki came to my home to try my dishes. She had a bite and was struck. “I’m happy to be alive because I could have such wonderful cuisine!” I remember she made a happy face at the moment she ate a bite. My anxiety was eased a little bit. I made sure that dishes could make people happy.
Finally I opened my own class at Niki’s Kitchen in December 2011.
I can never sit still
I heard and saw Japan through media or class when I was in Ethiopia. But what brought me to Japan was my older sister. She married a Japanese man and he is a wonderful person. I thought that Japanese like him were instrumental in making Japan what it is today. I stayed in my sister’s neighborhood for the first six months. Then I moved up to Tokyo to visit a friend from my country and she let me stay at her house.
But I vegetated only for three days after I came to Tokyo. Then I started to work at a Mexican restaurant. My roommate and a foreigner who was working there were friends, so I could meet the owner of the restaurant.
He asked me if I could memorize the names of 100 kinds of cocktails in a week. It was a kind of an employment test and I passed it. Then I started to work there.
I always cleaned up the restaurant before I went into the kitchen. The owner liked my diligence and treated me like a daughter. He taught me Japanese and Japanese history a lot. I got it when I didn’t speak good Japanese or didn’t say a cheerful hello to him. He pointed out every little mistake I made, so I often cried.
But on the other hand, he spoke to me like “Are you OK?” every time I had a tired face. He was like a good old Japanese father. His acerbity made me grow and his kindness really touched me. He said, “I realize whether you ‘re here or not as soon as I enter the restaurant”. I loved him.
She is making “Tibs”, which is “Broiled meat”. It’s a kind of a celebratory dinner or a meal which is served to show respect for guests. She made it very quickly. A little bit spicy, but you’ll get hooked on the texture of soft beef with red wine!
I got married when I was working at the Mexican restaurant. But I was there in the evening until midnight, so I couldn’t spend time with my husband very much. That’s why I quit the restaurant, but I couldn’t sit still and opened my own small hair salon in Shibuya, a shop that arranges hairstyles into dreads and other African styles.
I worked from 10AM until midnight everyday for seven years. Rent was high because my shop was in central Tokyo, so I had to attract many people. I felt pressured by that and it was emotionally very difficult.
My husband said to me, “Take a good rest”, but when Latonya told me about Niki’s Kitchen, I couldn’t help but do something. To me, relaxing was a waste of time. I’m the kind of person who always want to do something.
“OMG!” Every participant let out their voice. It’s called “Dabo“, a giant Ethiopian bread.
It’s difficult to make quickly so she prepared the dough beforehand.
Cooking enlarges my circle of friends
There are various age-groups at Niki’s Kitchen. There are businesspeople and housewives so I train myself to remember that I pay regard to every student.
I didn’t know how to interact with them when I opened my class. Those who came to my hair salon at Shibuya were mainly teenage girls. So it was easy to communicate with them. But people who have many backgrounds come to my class as I mentioned before, so I didn’t know which kind of topic would be interesting for them, I didn’t know how to choose a conversation-starter. I fumbled with words even if I could speak Japanese well. There was one time when I got so nervous that I spilled dishes. But my students were so sweet that they stroked me gently and said, “You’re doing well! So don’t be nervous!”.
My students find out something new at my class, like “Ethiopians also eat beans” “They eat chicken like this”. Then they tell their friends about my cuisine.
My daughter learns swimming. I see moms at a swimming school and they asked me about my job one day. So I told them about Niki’s Kitchen. They got interested and checked its website. They also looked at my class’s page and frequently said, “Looks good!””I want to eat that!”. Then we became friends little by little. Cooking connected me with them – I was happy with that.
Also some students tell me that they find out how we eat. I thought it was natural for us, but actually it was totally new to them. I wanted to relearn about my country.
Ta-da! Cuisine of the Ethiopian hilltribe called “Gurage“.
Spice of life
I’ve been in Japan for 14 years so I am totally used to everyday life in Japan. Sometimes I’m asked “What are your enjoyable experiences in Japan?”. I cannot answer. Let me ask you Mr. Tokuhashi (Interviewer), the same question. Maybe you won’t be able to answer like “This moment!” or “That event!”. If I were a tourist, I could say “This was good” but I’ve been here for a very long time so I’m almost the same as other Japanese. Happy and sad are always mixed. So I can’t say “I enjoyed it!” “It was tough for me!” for every single event in life.
I’ve not experienced fun things , but tough things that many foreigners encounter. My daughter was tricked by her classmates… but I met my fate here, had a child here, and I’m telling Japanese about my country here in Japan. So I really enjoy my everyday life. I give thanks to God daily.
A small coffee ceremony. Rose has made coffee for her whole family
since she was a little girl. She was joking like “Do not leave here before
having a 3rd cup of coffee”, but it’s true that the 3rd one is the best!
A job that I treasure from the bottom of my heart
I can work at home as long as I’m an instructor at Niki’s. Also I can tell people about our food culture. I really want to treasure this wonderful job from the bottom of my heart. So I naturally psych myself up for class.
For example, if I have a class on Saturday, I prepare for it from Thursday. Buying ingredients, cleaning up my house and organizing a kitchen in order to take out what is needed. As I don’t want students to wait for a long time because of a cluttered refrigerator, I keep everything in its place. I ask my husband NOT to move things or NOT stick other things in the fridge. I know I can be strict, but here is my working place. My husband say I’m weird.
I’m happy if people get interested in the Ethiopian cuisine – even if those people are small in number. But I’ll be happier if the number increases. Ethiopia is not well-known among Japanese. “Africa”, that’s it. But my country is only one of 56 African countries. Africa has various countries, cultures, ethnic groups, languages and cuisines.
I want to share “wow” and “surprise” with my students. So I would like to introduce you to the menu which suits the tastes of Japanese and lower the threshold of our cuisine, and I want to tell people our unique dishes like “injera“. I’d be happy if both people who know Ethiopia and those who don’t know it have our dishes.
What is Niki’s Kitchen to you?
It’s difficult to express in one word! But I feel happy to tell people about my home cooking from the bottom of my heart. I feel too happy for words.
Everybody says “WOW!” when they have our cuisine. Moreover every time I have a class, the number of people who learn about Ethiopia increases. I’m really happy to be asked like “What kind of country is Ethiopia?” I thank my students and Niki-san from the bottom of my heart.
Today we made the dishes of Gurage. There are about 100 ethnic groups in Ethiopia and each has their unique food culture.
I want to introduce Japanese to all of our food cultures. Hopefully I want to realize it at
Her page on Niki’s Kitchen website (Japanese): Click!