Colorado’s growing Ethiopian and Indian communities hope to broaden clientele with upcoming food festivals in Denver, Colorado Springs

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Courtesy of Nebiyu Asfaw.
Misir Wat, a lentil dish, is being served on injera, an Ethiopian sourdough bread at a Colorado’s Taste of Ethiopia before the food festival paused for three years because of the pandemic.

At the tables of the Ethiopian restaurants lining Colfax Avenue in Denver, diners pile misir wat, a lentil stew, onto sourdough flatbread, called injera, and slide the combination into  their mouths.

A similar ritual is occurring every night in Indian restaurants throughout the state, where diners carefully arrange chicken tikka masala on naan flatbread, topping it with tamarind chutney.

This weekend, Ethiopian and Indian restaurant owners and caterers around Colorado hope to expand the audiences who have discovered their foods at two different festivals – one in Denver, the other in Colorado Springs. Restaurants and caterers will show off culinary specialties, from street food to fine dining. 

The Ethiopian food festival, “Colorado’s Taste of Ethiopia” is back for its ninth time in Parkfield Lake Park. The simply titled “Indian Food Festival” the same afternoon is brand new, and will take place in Colorado Springs.

Nebiyu Asfaw is one of the organizers of the Ethiopian festival, back this year after a three-year hiatus. He’s part of a volunteer committee arranging representatives from Ethiopian restaurants, cafes, bakeries, food trucks and grocery stores to stake a claim in the Mile High, with a goal, he said, to “mainstream Ethiopian food and culture.” 

Courtesy of Nebiyu Asfaw.
Music and traditional Ethiopian clothing, depicted here in a photo before the pandemic, have both been big parts of previous festivals.

Festival attendees will be able to walk around the park, hear reggae and traditional Ethiopian music, and see demonstrations of both crafts and dance, he said.

“You get in, there’s free entertainment and everything else, but the food, they would purchase from the restaurant vendors,” Asfaw said. Plates of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food samplings will cost about $10, he added.

He’s looking forward to experiencing the food himself, particularly from an Aurora-based restaurant incubator that focuses on cuisine from the south of Ethiopia. “I’m actually pretty excited,” he said. “I’ve never actually had their food.”

That’s probably true for many Coloradans, who might not have had the chance to interact with the food of Ethiopia, or its people, who are a small fraction of Colorado’s 5.8 million people.

The U.S. Census’s American Community Survey shows that between 2017 and 2021, Colorado was home to almost 12,000 Ethiopian people – both those identifying as having been born in Ethiopia and those born in the U.S. That number increased from about 9,000 people for the period from 2012 until 2016.

India has an equally skinny sliver of the population pie, which, like Ethiopia’s, increased slightly in recent years. According to the ACS, between 2017 and 2021, Colorado was home to close to 36,000 people who identified as either being born in India, or of Indian descent. That number went up from just over 24,000 for the period of 2012 until 2016. 

One person included in that population is Monika Celly, who relocated to Colorado after growing up in the Indian state of Punjab. She gives Indian cooking classes featuring meals like chicken korma for about $100 in Colorado Springs, where there are only a handful of Indian restaurants. Now she’s throwing the first of what she hopes will be an annual Indian Food Festival, also set Saturday afternoon for free, except for the cost of food, which she said will range from $7 to $10.

Courtesy of Monika Celly.
Scenes from Monika Celly's most recent cooking class, July 15, 2023, where students learn to make Chicken Korma.

“I have been teaching Indian [cooking] classes and I thought, how about having all the regional Indian cuisine under one roof?” she said. She chose Academy International Elementary School, where her kids are alums, because the cafeteria opens to a yard where people can eat and interact. 

One guest representing a Denver restaurant will feature food from the South of India, otherwise unavailable in Colorado Springs.

”They are known for their savory crepes, which are called dosa, and then those steamed dumplings, they are made of rice, and then we use coconut chutney and other chutney and a special lentil soup with lots of veggies. It’s called sambar,” Celly said. “And that’s a very special meal.” 

Besides space for eating, the yard of the elementary school will be a space where tattoo artists will be applying henna, and dancers she’s invited will demonstrate a form of stick dancing from the Western state of Gujarat, both for free.

”The idea is that people will get their food inside the cafeteria. They will come out, sit on the picnic benches, and after that [learn some] traditional dance moves,” Celly said. 

Taste of Ethiopia takes place Saturday, Aug. 5 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 13333 E. 53rd Ave. in Denver. 

Indian Food Festival takes place Saturday, Aug. 5 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at 8550 Charity Dr. in Colorado Springs.