Q&A: Tutu Melaku, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table

Tutu Melaku was born in Addis Ababa and moved to Reading in 1991. In 2006 she opened Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in the Reading International Solidarity Centre and stayed there until 2019 when she took on her own premises in Palmer Park. Both Tutu and her restaurant have won numerous awards over the last fourteen years and earned plaudits in both the local and national press. Tutu’s Ethiopian Table is open in lockdown for takeaway, selling its dishes and sauces through the website. Tutu lives in New Town with her two children.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
My customers, because they’re like my extended family. We still keep up some online social contact through zoom coffee meetups and Facebook, but it’s not the same as filling my café with smiles, hugs, laughter, good food and good times!

What brought you to Reading almost 30 years ago? What were your first impressions of it?
I came from Ethiopia to join my (now ex-) husband who was doing his PhD at Reading University.  My first impressions of England were confusing: the doors of all the houses were closed and I couldn’t see any neighbours. It was as if there were no people! It was quite a lonely time.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Shiro. It’s a stew whose primary ingredient is powdered chickpeas or broad bean meal. It’s often prepared with the addition of minced onions, garlic and, depending upon regional variation, ground ginger or chopped tomatoes and chillies. It’s served with injera, and we ate it every day as children. I can still smell and taste it in my imagination.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading? 
The community includes such a wide of range of fascinating people. After those early lonely days, I soon got to understand the English way of life better, and now I feel at home and I love the richness of our community, and know so many amazing people. 

What is your most treasured possession? 
My two beautiful children, Bethlehem and Biruk. They are both in the middle of “online” university exams at the moment, so I have the unexpected delight of their company during lockdown. I’m so proud of them and love who they are – they’re great company and a massive blessing to me.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
Cleaning university halls, when I first came to the UK. It was grim, especially Monday mornings after wild uni weekends!

What prompted you to start Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in 2006?
In 2004 I was doing some mobile catering from home – food for birthday parties, weddings and office lunches.  It became so popular that my home kitchen just wasn’t big enough any longer, so I begun to look for premises. After being turned down lots of times, I managed to convince RISC to hand over their kitchen so I could get my business established there.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
To be honest, I’m not a fussy eater. For me, a meal is more about the people and the atmosphere – the social side – than about the food. I’ve had really simple meals with totally amazing people, and those are occasions I’ll remember for ever!

What was your most embarrassing moment?
When I came to England I went shopping in a super market and picked up a delicious looking tin of meat. It had such a nice picture of a cat on it.  I didn’t know at that stage that English people bought tins of food for their pets…

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My sister says I always said I would run my own school one day, maybe because I was the bossy big sister! My business has given me the amazing opportunity to make that dream come true: I’ve been able to set up “Tutu’s Fund For The Future”, raising money to build schools in Ethiopia and sponsor children through their education there. So far I’ve been able to build two schools in a remote deprived part of Ethiopia. It’s great to give back to my country, and to see my childhood dream come true in a way I could never have imagined.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
I will go for coffee with my friends. I don’t eat out that often, but coffees and catch-ups are things I miss a lot!

You’ve run your business for almost fifteen years. What have been the highest and lowest points so far?
The highest point was opening my own premises in Palmer Park last March. It was better than a dream come true, after so much hard work. The premises were run down, filthy and full of rubble when I was first given the keys, and – with the help of some wonderful friends who believed in me – I worked day and night to make it into the beautiful homely place it is now. The lowest point was the first few days of the shock of lockdown, when I realised my life and work were going to change dramatically over the coming months.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I never watch a film twice: I always like new films!

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Michelle and Barack Obama.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Black Pepper Kettle Crisps.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
All things are possible if you work hard.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I am an open book: I don’t have any secrets!

Where is your happy place?
Being at home, with my kids. That’s definitely been the plus side of lockdown: having time to be together and enjoy our home and garden.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Ginger biscuits. I’ve been known to eat one before bedtime, then sneak downstairs and get another one for a midnight snack!

Describe yourself in three words.
Loyal, positive and persevering.

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