‘Taste of Abyssinia’ owner shares flavor and culture with Vermonters

Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 5:20 PM EST
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Five Vermont food establishments were recently nominated for James Beard awards. One of the semi-finalists is Alganesh Michael, the owner of A Taste of Abyssinia.

If Alganesh Michael is in the kitchen, you can bet there’s something tasty on the menu. For nearly 10 years Michael has brought the flavors of Ethiopia -- and her home country of Eritrea -- to Vermont.

“The culture is different, and I am a big proponent of not only the food but enjoy learning a little bit about the culture as well,” Michael said. And now she’s being recognized for it nationally, snagging a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef in the Northeast. “It’s surreal, you know? I’m still trying to process it.”

Following the nomination, visitors to A Taste of Abyssinia are booming. But it was a long road to get here. Michael moved to Vermont in 2003 and gave up a career in nursing to be a stay-at-home mom when her kids were little. But a friend knew of her passion for cooking and wanted her to share it with the community.

“And she said, ‘Alganesh, what are you going to lose? Give it a try, you know?’” Michael recalled.

A Taste of Abyssinia started out as an ArtsRiot kitchen takeover in 2014 and was warmly received by the community. She started doing pop-ups, catering, cooking classes, and other appearances until the pandemic hit, and she had to pivot. “With the help of my girls and my husband, I kind of felt good to try delivery,” she said.

Now, Michael offers takeout-only cooking at The Mill Market and Deli in South Burlington. The aroma of herbs and spices from the chicken, beef, and lentil dishes envelop the space as she prepares for a sold-out week of takeout. “We eat communal, so you have a big platter full of food. And then you take it to the customers and then they just sit and enjoy with their friends and family,” Michael said.

Each meal is centered around the Injera, a flat, sourdough-type bread unique to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Without it, Michael says your meal isn’t authentic. The rest of the platter is made up of sauces and curries to dip the Injera in -- and they come with a kick. “We tend to eat spicy dishes but here I have to cut it down,” she said.

Vermont has long eaten up Michael’s cooking, and as she gains even more traction with the James Beard nomination, she hopes the community eats up Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures, too. “What’s food without the culture, right? Food brings us to the table. But also when we sit and eat, we share the culture,” she said.

That is her main goal. But winning the award would be nice too. Even if she doesn’t win, Michael says she’s humbled and grateful. “I am a small person, you know? I’m a small person that does... I don’t even have a brick-and-mortar. I work with a local store owner, you know what I mean? This is for big people, big chefs, but apparently, I am there,” she said.

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