Written and photo by Denise Miller
Immigrant and refugee chefs are cooking up a world of cuisines at Spice Bridge, the new food hall and commercial kitchen in Tukwila. Operated by the nonprofit organization Global to Local, Spice Bridge is the cornerstone of their Food Innovation Network (FIN) program, which helps aspiring entrepreneurs launch and build food businesses.
Eight food vendors rotate through four stalls in the sunlit food hall, offering a new dining experience every day. With indoor dining currently restricted, the initial group of eight women-owned businesses are currently offering takeaway meals and making use of outdoor seating in the new Tukwila Village development. Entrees ranging from Congolese to Afghan are priced from $8 to $16, served every day but Monday.
This fall, we’re introducing you to the five Spice Bridge businesses that are owned by African and Muslim chefs. We previously featured Taste of Congo, Moyo Kitchen, Afella Jollof Catering, and Jazze’s. Today we complete the series with WUHA Ethiopian-American Cuisine owner Liyu Yirdaw.
Growing up in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, Liyu loved to spend time with her mom in the kitchen.
“Everything she cooked has always had an exciting and wonderful taste to it,” Liyu said.
Inspired to study western cooking at culinary school, Liyu graduated at the top of her class. When she came to the United States 15 years ago, she was thrilled by the variety of different ethnic foods she found, and began experimenting with different flavor combinations.
“Food is an art for me, and I like to create mouthwatering bites by mixing flavors, spices, and herbs from different cultures, and also recreating dishes by adding or substituting ingredients,” Liyu said.
Liyu launched WUHA in October to offer a unique blend of Ethiopian and American foods, served more quickly than a typical Ethiopian restaurant meal.
We spoke with Liyu about her Spice Bridge menu, the meaning of “WUHA,” and her big plans for the business. Read our Q&A to learn more about this dynamic entrepreneur!
Please tell us about your business.
I offer customized food for people who have never eaten Ethiopian food before, people who like to experience new flavors, curious foodies, and for those who are used to eating American food and ready for a different take on it. We bring those two cultures together and let them inspire each other to complement one another. We also minimized some of the spiciness out of the Ethiopian food without sacrificing the taste of the food, sometimes just by simply cooking it longer. If people want to try Ethiopian food, but they aren’t ready for the full burst of flavors, then they can taste this. It’s not too spicy, but it’s spicy enough for it to be distinctively Ethiopian.
It’s also a fast experience. Most of the time when you go to an Ethiopian restaurant, there is a long waiting time, but we have quicker service. You can get in and get out quicker. Which makes it ideal for people who are short on time and want to grab and go. We also designed our menu items portion for 1-2 person servings which makes it convenient for solo dinners or for people who like to come in a group of two or more, as it allows everyone to have their own food, plate or to-go box, to eat out of. This also makes it safer and convenient for customers to stay in compliance with current COVID-19 guidelines. The portion size also makes it possible for people to eat and finish their food in one sitting instead of having leftovers, and carrying it around with their car smelling like food.
What makes your cuisine special?
What makes my cuisine special is that I cook it as if I would cook it for my family: with great care and love. If you like spicy food, but not too spicy, then you will get that taste in my cuisine. We serve both vegetarian and meat lovers, wheat and gluten-free injera, dessert with nuts, without nuts, and without butter, so everyone is welcome to come get the full taste without sacrificing the taste or flavors of the food.
We always go for the healthier version of everything—heart-healthy food with less fat. I use healthy oils like olive, grapeseed oil, or coconut oil depending on the food. I’m also trying to help people add vegetables to their diet. And we won’t sell things with too much sugar. We’re not planning to serve sodas; we have bottled water, coconut water and carbonated mineral water focusing on hydration and digestion, because we want to introduce healthy options.
Can you describe some dishes you offer at Spice Bridge?
We have beef and vegetarian injera rolls; injera is an Ethiopian flatbread, and I roll it with meat, vegetables, and sauces I make from scratch.
Our beef roast sandwich with an Ethiopian twist, served with oven roasted potatoes, is very popular.
We also have our already-famous dessert, WUHA’s baklava, made in house with an option of with nuts, without nuts, and with no butter for vegans.
We’re also planning all-day breakfast days, with both American food like pancakes and Ethiopian food like ful—and we’ll present things in a way that you wouldn’t expect.
How did you choose your business name?
“Wuha” means “water” in Amharic, which is the national language of Ethiopia. Water is life. A person can live long without food, but cannot live without water more than a couple of days as more than 60 percent of the human body is water. Water is for everyone, and I want my food to be like that—I want for everyone to love and enjoy it. I want WUHA and its future products to go worldwide, and that’s how and why I named my business WUHA.
What challenges have you encountered trying to establish your business, and how have you overcome those challenges?
I’ve always wanted to have a food business, but I was afraid. When you have a food business, there is more to it than just cooking. There is accounting, managing your budget and people, menu making, logo and business card designing, licensing, state and city regulations and guidelines to follow and so much more to the business. Also, at the beginning, I started with a partner who couldn’t be in the business anymore for a variety of reasons. It was sad for me, and hard to lose my partner. And I went from sharing responsibilities to having to do everything as one owner.
COVID has also been a big challenge. For one thing, the way we think about food businesses changed. Also, I am a nurse, and I had to adjust with that work.
My focus shifted, but I’m back on track now. Being with FIN, I am really hopeful and I believe I will get there with no problem because I’m working with a group of people who want me to succeed, and who are there for me. The FIN staff have helped me, keeping me on track and focused. When I have a question or something is hard, I have someone to ask, and someone who can share ideas and consult.
What is your dream for your business?
Opening at Spice Bridge is a first step for me, and I have big plans for WUHA. This is the beginning of it—my plan is to expand and franchise WUHA around the world. I also want to start packaging foods. I want people to find my food in every grocery store so they can heat it up and enjoy it anytime at home. I want it to be accessible. I also want to start our WUHA’s mixed spices line for people who want to try and cook my food at home.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
The main ingredient in my food is love. I love my mom’s food, and I especially want to eat it after a long day. All I want to do is go home and eat my mom’s food, dine with my parents. I think a lot of people can relate to that, and I want people to get that warm feeling when they eat my food. When they come, I want them to not only get that good food, but to also to feel loved and taken care of and to feel the good energy that they could feed off of. I want my food and my service to make their day and give them the comfort they need—that’s very important to me. I’m coming from a really good place, and I want to deliver that feeling to people. I want them to have an unforgettable great experience.
Visit WUHA at Spice Bridge
Spice Bridge is located at 14200 Tukwila International Blvd. Suite 141, Tukwila, WA 98168. Free parking is available between Spice Bridge and the Tukwila Library.
WUHA is open at Spice Bridge on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Purchase WUHA gift cards online.
Spice Bridge has takeout and outdoor dining from four vendors available from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.