Best Importer of Incendiary Spices: East African Imports

Amanuel buys direct: “Mom controls the quality.”

Perhaps the smartest decision Berhane Amanuel made in his life was leaving his mother behind in Ethiopia when he emigrated in 1987. Now Amanuel’s got somebody on the inside to coordinate his import business, which last year brought $200,000 worth of Ethiopian spices and goods into Seattle.

Amanuel, a soft-spoken Metro bus driver, runs East African Imports out of the corner of a strip mall in Judkins Park. Beaded masks, musical instruments, and posters of bare-breasted African women line the walls, while the nucleus of the store is composed of racks of lentils, fenugreek seeds, butter-flavoring agents, and berbere, the fiery spice mix that provides the complex heat of Ethiopian stews. This is one end of the operation; on the other end, in Addis Ababa, is Amanuel’s septuagenarian mom, Whaid, who oversees a workforce of maybe a half-dozen people. “They buy the raw material, and they grind and mix it,” says Amanuel, who’s 48. “My mom is the one who controls the quality.”

If you see a spice for sale in Seattle that claims to be direct from Ethiopia, chances are it first passed through East African Imports. Amanuel supplies spices and grain to more than 20 restaurants and stores in the city. He sells wholesale to shops across the country. He didn’t have this business model in mind when he started selling Ethiopian baskets, jewelry, and assorted knickknacks on eBay before opening his shop about five years ago. The spices were just a means to fill the empty gaps in his shipping containers. But now they’re his primary focus, as well as a godsend to Ethiopian gourmands. “They have [the same spices] here,” he says, “but somehow it’s different from home.”

Amanuel carries the ground hops, roasted corn, and malt craved by émigrés who want to make their own home-style beer. He has the barley used for breakfast cereal. He’s the go-to guy for green coffee, ceramic coffee pots, and movies about coffee. (“Ethiopia is the birthplace for coffee,” he explains.) What looks like detritus collected from a forest floor and ladled into plastic containers is actually a distinctive type of Ethiopian incense. Bula powder from the false banana tree is a big seller: It’s used to prepare a nourishing soup that’s popular with postpartum women. The products are packaged in baby-food jars and flimsy plastic tubs that apparently once held different food products.

“They get boiled, treated, and reused,” Amanuel says of the odd containers, which he asserts undergo U.S. quality control checks. “Here, they would just get recycled.”— 2301 S. Jackson St., No. 204, 322-7717.

More in News & Comment

Michelle Obama brings largest crowd of book tour to Tacoma Dome

Former First Lady and author of ‘Becoming’ spends afternoon with local book club prior to event.

King County Council with Sarah Reyneveld, chair of the King County Women’s Advisory Board. Photo courtesy of King County
King County proclaims March as Women’s History Month

This year’s theme is Womxn Who Lead: Stories from the past and how they influence the future.

BPA could remove thousands of trees along Eastside transmission lines

The maintenance would affect power lines running from Renton to Monroe.

A man addresses the King County Council during a public hearing March 20 at New Life Church in Renton. He presented bags filled with what he said was hazardous materials dropped on his property by bald eagles. Another speaker made similar claims. Haley Ausbun/staff photo
Locals show support for King County waste to energy plant

Public hearing on landfill’s future was held March 20 in Renton.

Vigil event at Redmond mosque brings in 1,000-plus crowd

The event also included a teach-in to school attendees on Islamophobia and its root causes.

Bill to protect compost operations from lawsuits fails again

This is the third time Cedar Grove sought changes to reduce threat of legal action over bad odors.

Baseball gets more fun: Everett venue is now Funko Field

Everett Memorial Stadium, home of the minor-league AquaSox, will get new branding and a 15-foot statue.

‘What a community college is all about’: Meet a top scholar

Lazarus Hart is among those named to the All-Washington Academic Team from community colleges.

What tax raising idea will win out in March budget madness?

Democrats, who control the state House and Senate, are set to release spending plans and revenue packages.

Most Read