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Good food and good hearts at Baltimore’s Ekiben restaurant, a story for our times | COMMENTARY

Ekiben founders Steve Chu and Ephrem Abebe prepare their tempura broccoli in Vermont. The founders drove six hours last weekend to prepare the dish after a longtime customer emailed to inquire how to make it for his mother-in-law, who had requested it on her deathbed.
Ekiben founders Steve Chu and Ephrem Abebe prepare their tempura broccoli in Vermont. The founders drove six hours last weekend to prepare the dish after a longtime customer emailed to inquire how to make it for his mother-in-law, who had requested it on her deathbed. (Brandon Jones/Photo courtesy of Brandon Jones)

Anyone who hasn’t eaten the tempura broccoli from Baltimore’s Ekiben restaurant is missing out on a real treat. It’s light and crispy with lots of flavor. But the sooner you eat it, the better the experience, lest it get soggy sitting around. You often hear of people devouring it in the car on the drive home from picking it up. It tastes that good. Some might say that the broccoli has its own cult following; at the very least it’s one of the popular fusion restaurant’s most loved dishes. This week, it made news around the world and showed that Ekiben’s owners aren’t just great chefs and businesspeople, but kindhearted and compassionate folks as well — people to look up to and emulate.

As The Sun’s food reporter Christina Tkacik reported, it all started with an email to Ekiben’s owners and co-founders Steve Chu and Ephrem Abebe. Canton residents Brandon Jones and his wife, Rina, wanted to get some of the broccoli to Vermont, where Rina’s mother is dying from lung cancer. She is a huge fan of the dish and had joked once, before the onset of her illness, about having it on her deathbed. That time had come. But the couple knew the food wouldn’t travel well. Might Mr. Chu and Mr. Abebe have tips on how to recreate it?

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Recreate it? The two owners had a much better idea. They would meet the couple in Vermont and cook the broccoli themselves. “A no-brainer” of an idea,” Mr. Chu would later say. And that is what they did, driving six hours on a recent Saturday and setting up a fryer in the back of their pickup truck on the following Sunday outside Ms. Jones’ mom’s house. There, in air so frigid the fryer took a long time to heat up, they cooked the broccoli — the most perfect they had ever made, Mr. Chu said — as well as some other dishes.

Ms. Jones’ mother was indeed surprised, perking up as the smell of the food wafted in from outside. The sores in her mouth that had made it difficult to eat didn’t ruin this meal, which she happily consumed. Her daughter and son-in-law, in the meantime, were in disbelief over it all, glad to provide a happy moment to their loved one. It’s enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. And from the looks of social media comments, this was a Kleenex moment for plenty of people. It certainly touched our hearts.

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As we begin to ease out of a pandemic that has brought hardship to so many people and continue to deal with a politically and racially polarized country, the story of Ekiben and the traveling broccoli is the heartwarming tale that we all needed right now. Lots of us are mentally exhausted, and this story was nourishment for our souls. It reminds us about the value of selflessness and giving back, even when it involves people we don’t know all that well. Such kindness brings happiness to those on the receiving end, but is also good for the mental health of those dishing it out and the rest of us, hearing about it. We don’t tell enough stories about good deeds like this one. It ought to encourage all of us to think a little more about others.

The good deeds of the Ekiben owners have been well rewarded, with virtual accolades and increased orders of food from fans wanting to show their appreciation. It feels even better to support a business you already liked when you realize they are good people as well. Companies spend millions on advertising campaigns to drum up this kind of emotional connection to their brands. For Ekiben, it is authentic. They remain humble despite the viral spread of their admirable actions. Mr. Chu and Mr. Abebe have brushed off the attention, calling it good hospitality. We, for one, are not going to let them walk away so quietly. Their deed took customer service to a whole other level. So we too officially join the Ekiben fan club. Job well done gentleman. And your food is pretty good too.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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