Helina Melaku is an Ethiopian American who is fascinated with teaching about her culture and heritage to those around her. She also likes to cook. Right before the pandemic hit, she decided to put these things together. Melaku has opened Konjo Mea food service offering Ethiopian food, spices and coffee, which has turned into a new pop-up in Detroit.
Recently, she hosted a pop-up event at Baobab Fare.
Konjo Me stands for “beautiful self” or “embracing your true inner self and inner beauty,” she says.
Melaku was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She immigrated to the United States in 2003 as a teenager. One of the things she brought with her that she is very fond of is her Ethiopian cuisine – something she wants everyone to try.
Melaku says Ethiopian food is prepared and eaten with the hands.
“Culturally, when we eat, we eat together even from one plate… I wanted to bring that to others as well,” she says.
At the pop-up, she serves a three-course meal served with injera, a thin sourdough flatbread made from teff wheat, it’s a staple served at all meals. Melaku says you can’t eat Ethiopian food without injera.
People sit with family or friends as they stare at the menu, laugh and wait in anticipation of their appetizers, like fried pastries called sambusas. Melaku stuffs his with lentils to accommodate vegans at the pop-up.
“Our starter options are chicken tibs, we have wot dinish, which is like a potato stew, and we have a third, ater kik, which is the chopped peas with turmeric,” she says. .
For dessert, there’s a 7-pound cake with a scoop of Konjo Me coffee vanilla ice cream.
Melaku has been offering food at pop-up events for 10 months. The first was in Midtown Detroit.
“Part of the very starting of this business is to get people, in general, Americans [together]so they are exposed to different cultures on food and drink… I just want the whole world to experience it.
She says Ethiopia has an ancient and vibrant history – with music, food and an alphabet. She says the country practices the oldest Christianity in the world and is also referenced in the Bible.
“So it’s a very rich culture with beautiful people who love, share, give to each other and help each other as well.”
Melaku says that during the pandemic, she had time to reflect on what mattered most to her: building community and feeding people.
“The loss of loved ones really showed me that life is too short, and that I threw myself into what I always dreamed of doing and believed in, and I threw myself into it,” she says.
Melaku started her business in March 2020. Little did she know that COVID-19 would soon become her biggest challenge.
“When it comes to how the food is delivered, the contact less [pickup and delivery] even finding workers was the hardest part, making sure we were following all the guidelines and restrictions,” she says.
She says she made decisions intentionally and stepped forward when it felt right.
Bryce Detroit is one of Konjo Me’s regular customers.
“I’m a big fan of Konjo Me. I’ve been supporting pop-ups and catering for at least a year and a half now. Helina is amazing and I really appreciate how she brings this cultural culture through the culinary arts,” he says.
Detroit brought his two daughters to try dishes like Danish wot, ater and sambusas.
“It’s exposing them to our ancestral palette, for real. So getting them in touch with that and then having the tongue experience food and taste where we are designed,” he says.
One thing Melaku says she struggles with is being a woman in the food industry.
“Sometimes people aren’t open to sharing resources, experiences, so when you find those who guide you or point you in the right direction, I’m very humbled,” she says.
Melaku says that all you have to do is keep taking on the challenges, “to keep the momentum going. That doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time every day, but don’t give up and keep pushing, keep adding.
She also sells Ethiopian spices and coffee, and she hopes to expand her restaurant and pop-up business to a brick-and-mortar location.
Melaku started his business at the start of the pandemic to feed people and build community. She relied on her “Konjo Me” pop-up to find a beautiful way to celebrate her Ethiopian culture with the Detroiters and keep hope alive for a better future.