‘I just started it as a joke with my friends,’ Beza tells me about her Ethiopian restaurant which shares her name. It began life in 2006 in the bustle of Camden Market before moving to Elephant & Castle as a pop-up in 2016, and then setting up as a restaurant in Elephant Park last year. It’s a serious business now.
Beza is bubbly and warm, and more than anything, she cares deeply about the community she’s fostered in Elephant & Castle. ‘We became family, not friends.’ Although she lives in north London, Beza is happy to make the daily commute to Southwark. ‘When I reach Elephant & Castle, I feel like it is my home.’
While veganism has skyrocketed in the last few decades in the West, in Ethiopia it’s been around for hundreds of years, just under a different name. ‘We call it fasting,’ she tells me. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the world’s oldest religious bodies and during the fasting months leading up to Easter, no meat or dairy products are consumed. ‘When I came here, people kept saying “vegan” and I was like “What is vegan?”’ Beza explains. Then she realised it was what she knew as fasting food – and Londoners loved it.
She learned how to cook from her grandmother, who had a plant-based diet, and her restaurant dishes up warm injera flatbread with delicious sides, including lentil, mung bean and split-pea dishes.
But Beza does more than serving up food; she’s all about serving the community too, helping those most impacted in 2020. During the first lockdown, she teamed up with Feed the Workers and donated food to the charity Pembroke House. ‘My sister, she’s a nurse. I saw how tired she was,’ says Beza. So she made it her mission to help feed frontline workers, homeless people and people in need of food. ‘What is the meaning of living in this world if you don’t help each other?’
In September, the central hub of Southwark, Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, closed its doors for the last time and the iconic hot-pink elephant statue was removed. Demolition for yet another regeneration project in the area is expected to continue into summer next year. It’s leaving many traders, who are the backbone of the community, uprooted and looking for a new home. ‘I know a few people: that’s their lives,’ says Beza. ‘I feel sad. How are we going to support them?’
This year has already been an incredibly challenging one for traders. ‘It’s not easy, we’ve had a difficult year,’ Beza admits. But she’s still hopeful. ‘We have to support each other,’ she says, vowing to buy her ingredients locally, ‘because if I didn’t get it from them, these people aren’t going to survive. Everything is give and take. It’s nice to support each other.’
8a Sayer St, SE17 1FH. bezaveganfood.com
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