click to enlarge Lily Fasil owns Buna Kurs, a traditional Ethiopian breakfast cafe in Jackson Ward.

Scott Elmquist

Lily Fasil owns Buna Kurs, a traditional Ethiopian breakfast cafe in Jackson Ward.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Ethiopian Eats

Buna Kurs brings the cafe flavors of East Africa to Jackson Ward.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 30, 2022 at 4:00 AM

If the local legend is to be believed, today’s $108 billion dollar global coffee market began with the bean’s discovery by a lowly goat herder named Kaldi on the Ethiopian plateau.

With the opening of Buna Kurs in Jackson Ward, Lily Fasil hopes her new café will remind Richmond of the rich cultural heritage behind everyone’s favorite pick-me-up.

In Amharic — one of dozens of languages spoken in Ethiopia, “buna” equals “coffee” and “kurs” translates to “breakfast.” Together, the words take on the meaning of a light snack to be shared during the traditional coffee ceremony. Fasil’s sister, Aida, suggested the name as a north star for what the café offers customers: an authentic Ethiopian experience that is as accessible as it is delicious.

“Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, so we know how to enjoy it better than anyone,” says Fasil. “It’s one of the most hospitable countries in the world. You don’t just come to our homes and leave. You have to sit down, drink coffee, and eat.”

click to enlarge “Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee," Fasil says. "So we know how to enjoy it better than anyone." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • “Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee," Fasil says. "So we know how to enjoy it better than anyone."

To recreate that welcoming tradition, Fasil plans to host a customary coffee ceremony once a week after she settles into her new storefront. Patrons will get to watch the beans be washed and roasted right in front of them and enjoy a classically Ethiopian way to connect with family and friends over a cup of coffee.

“It’s an experience,” explains Fasil. “There are three rounds of coffee, so it’s a great time to gossip and catch up. It’s not for the normal life we live right now that is very much grab your drink and go. You sit and relax, unwind, and experience every taste and smell of the coffee as it changes over the several servings.”

When Fasil moved to the United States from Ethiopia to get an education, she never imagined she would one day own her own café. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Virginia Commonwealth University, she spent the next few years doing office odd jobs, but those positions never felt like a good fit.

“I couldn’t find something that fit my passion because I am bubbly and chatty and just not a corporate person that can sit behind a desk,” she says.

Her side hustles of photography and event planning brought her joy. The idea of opening a collaborative creative studio inspired her, but she wasn’t sure what would bring in enough revenue to keep such a concept afloat.

When Aida suggested adding a coffee component to her business plan while on a family trip to Ethiopia last August, the outline of Buna Kurs was born. That same month, Saadia Yasmin, owner of Saadia’s Juicebox, told Fasil that she was looking to close her business in Jackson Ward, and the idea suddenly morphed into a brick-and-mortar.

click to enlarge Buna Kurs opened in late October at 402 1/2 N. Second St., where it took over the space formerly occupied by Saadia’s JuiceBox and Yoga Bar. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Buna Kurs opened in late October at 402 1/2 N. Second St., where it took over the space formerly occupied by Saadia’s JuiceBox and Yoga Bar.

As someone who often feels homesick for the land where she was born, Fasil also believes Buna Kurs is helping her to heal: “I just wanted to bring a little bit of my first home to my second home, so I thought: ‘Why don’t I bring some of Ethiopia here so that I can feel whole again?”

Although in Ethiopia folks often drink their coffee with butter or salt in a more savory fashion, Fasil is fine with cultural assimilation on this front. With Gray Fultz as Buna Kurs’ barista in chief, the café is sourcing all of its beans from Ethiopia and eschews altering natural flavors except for a festive house-made syrup supplement every once in a while.

Those who prefer tea will not be disappointed. Buna Kurs stocks a variety of traditional teas from Ethiopia including a keshir tea, the country’s classic cold remedy that blends ginger, honey, orange juice, and lemon to create a throat-soothing beverage. Kemem chai is another favorite; its blend of tea leaves, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom is a morning must for Fasil.

As the name Buna Kurs implies, along with coffee must come food as well. The breakfast combo is the best way to sample your way through the menu as it includes three dishes on one plate.

Fasil loves starting her day with injera firfir, a mixture of shredded Ethiopian pancakes, paprika paste, tomatoes, and onions garnished with fresh jalapeños. Something like scrambled eggs, silsi features smaller chunks of cooked egg with olive oil, tomatoes, onions, and berbere — a versatile blend of spices that makes its way into almost every East African dish.

For a smoother breakfast option, try the kinche, a porridge like blend of bulgur topped with yellow onions and garlic sautéed with purified Ethiopian butter and topped with fresh jalapeños. The final dish Fasil suggests is chechebsa. Made in house, these bites of fried bread are thin, crunchy, and pair well with olive oil and a pinch of honey.

To serve such traditional Ethiopian food in a town that has never before had East African options for breakfast requires bravery, but Fasil is certain her menu represents the perfect pairing of authenticity and accessibility.

“In Ethiopia, our forks are our fingers. But don’t worry, we do have silverware in house,” she says.

Buna Kurs is located at 402 1/2 N 2nd St Suite A. It is open Tuesday-Sunday from 7 a.m. - 3 p.m.

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