As Ethiopian New Year, enkutatash, approaches, many find themselves craving some comfort food from the Horn of Africa, if not, it’s usually about trying something exotic!’
Ethiopia works on its own calendar, one which consists of 13 months, the last month being the shortest of five to six epagomenal days in accordance to a leap year and phases of the moon. New Year, therefore, falls on the 11th of September, and 12th every four years. This year, on the 11th, Ethiopia enters the year 2010! Luckily, as you walk up Long Street, you start to get the feeling that the busy streets hide a lot of hidden experiences that might just satisfy those cravings for spicy food.
Approaching 77 Long Street, a busy shop entrance, with beautiful silver and nickel crosses, beads and artwork hides its first gem, Madam Taitou. Originally an art shop, opened by Solomon Yigzaw, putting on a magnificent display of Ethiopian art, the interior of the little shop has evolved into cosy tree houses serving fresh Ethiopian food, on traditional trii’s, large communal plates, where families share an array of spicy dishes.
‘We wanted to share Ethiopian and African art with the people of Cape Town, we did not think of opening a restaurant. Not until our customers suggested we share our local cuisine with them. And so I thought, well why not? So we expanded into what you see today’, says Solomon.
He explains that he wants people to experience what it is like to be invited into an Ethiopian home, sharing food, and to be exported out of Cape Town for a few hours, all while experiencing and appreciating the artwork without feeling pressure to buy it. However, it is hard to resist the antique looking jewellery and beautiful Ethiopian scarves, with traditional tilet designs woven at the bottom.
Their injera is fresh and their dishes authentically Ethiopian, and for someone who desperately seeks a taste of home, like me, it sure comes very close! Their Sergenya platter gives you a taste of all their intricate dishes, from spicy Doro Wot, commonly referred to as spicy chicken stew, Yeh Beg Alicha, a mild and fragrant lamb stew, the classic Shiro, a stew made from spicy chickpea flour, to Missir Kik, a split pea stew, and for the adventurous, gored gored, diced beef, often eaten raw, mixed with chilli and kibe, clarified Ethiopian spiced butter, just to name a few. As your taste buds start to tingle, the food is served on traditional injera, sourdough flat bread commonly made from the teff flour, indigenous to Ethiopia. The teff grain is now considered a super food, free from gluten, high in protein, low G.I. and, high in calcium and iron. All in all, it is great for you and your health! And all that is left to say is ‘eneblah!’. The word simply exclaims, ‘let us eat!’ serving as an invitation by hosts to their guests.
Ethiopian food is also eaten with your hands. Injera is brought to you on the side, and you rip small pieces of the bread to scoop the food and create the perfect gursha, which is usually described as a perfect food morsel, by foreigners. The experience is eccentric, it sets itself apart from every other cuisine, but it is also mouth-wateringly divine.
Ethiopian food caters to every palette, from spicy to mild, the blend of spices vary, with the most common one being berbere, Ethiopian chilli powder. It also provides a number of vegan dishes, making it an ideal cuisine to tantalise everyone’s appetite.
As you walk across from the busy storefront of Madam Taitou, Yeshi Mekonnen awaits you with a beautiful Ethiopian coffee ceremony at Little Ethiopia. Yeshi came to Cape Town to study, but once she got here, she decided that what Cape Town needed was some more Ethiopian food. Hosting coffee ceremonies according to bookings, do not miss a chance to visit her for lunch or an afternoon coffee, while sitting outside under the Capetonian sunrays.
Ethiopian coffee ceremonies are truly something to experience. Yeshi explains that fresh green coffee beans are roasted on coals, as onlookers enjoy the traditional coffee pairing of salty, and sometimes sweet, popcorn, while etan, incense, burns nearby. As the coffee beans are almost done roasting, the coffee brewer gives her guests an opportunity to inhale the smoke and appreciate the aroma of the freshly roasted beans, before they are ground by a mortar and pestle and brewed in a traditional clay jebena, or what may look like an elaborately designed and crafted pot. As the coffee brews, and it boils up the spout of the jebena, the brewer pours the coffee out to cool, and back in to repeat the process twice more. The strong coffee is then drunk three times out of small handless coffee cups; the last cup being drank as a blessing.
This beautiful ceremony can be experienced after a filling lunch over freshly made injera, and some of the staples mentioned previously, as well as the vegan platter known as a Beyaynetu. Some of the more traditional vegetable dishes like gomen, collard greens, or alicha, a cabbage, potato and carrot stew, are assembled on the trii, and is often enjoyed during tsom, the Ethiopian fasting period. If you make it there early, you might be able to catch Yeshi bake the injera on an electric mitad, a flat top stove that she brought all the way from Ethiopia herself.
As you walk a little further up Long Street, you work up your appetite to hit the last stop on your tour of Ethiopian restaurants, appropriately named, Addis in Cape. As you walk in, an Ethiopian angel greets you, an orthodox design of a head with wings, often found on the ceilings of Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The design of the restaurant is authentically Ethiopian. Large silver and nickel Ethiopian crosses are displayed; the ceilings are covered with colourful Ethiopian umbrellas, usually seen at church early Sunday mornings as you walk through the streets of Addis and its rural surroundings, and commonly used by the priests. There are no dining tables to be seen in this restaurant, apart from beautifully carved Ethiopian coffee tables and woven straw-plaited mesob’s, used to serve the food on. These woven mesob’s are woven baskets, often surrounded by short wooden stools known as burchuma’s, or in the case of Addis in Cape, low wooden and leather stools, gorgeously carved in traditional Ethiopian designs.
‘When I opened my first restaurant in Dar Es Salaam in 1988, Ethiopia was thought of as poverty and famine stricken. There was a drought, and the images coming out of Ethiopia were of a starving population, and I wanted to change the perception of it through food, my food. I wanted to reach out to people’, says Senait Mekonnen.
Her recipes have been perfected over the years, and she caters to locals daily, even opening her doors on First Thursdays, for people who want to simply admire Ethiopian art. Here, the spices are imported monthly from Ethiopia, and the injera is fresh.
‘The spices are fresh from Ethiopia, and they are not just any spices, they are made with care. My mother and sister make it in Ethiopia!’ says Senait with pride as she speaks of the process of blending the spices to perfection.
As the trii is placed on a beautiful woven mesob, the kitfo, served alongside gomen and ayeb, Ethiopian homemade cottage cheese, and karia sineg stand out. Kitfo being a tartar of beef, mixed with berbere and kibe, and the latter, a spicy green chilli, cored and stuffed with onions and tomato.
A must have at Addis in Cape is the homemade Ethiopian honey wine, tej, to be enjoyed beside the spicy food, served in a traditional glass berele, or round bottom bottle, held with two fingers at the mouth to drink, but be warned, ask a for a wine glass, the berele is only for experienced tej drinkers! And it goes without saying, that the coffee and Ethiopian spiced tea blends are a treat to end off the meal.
As the day winds down, I think of how unique Ethiopian culture is, much like any other. While, the definitions and descriptions of the food and drinks are what Ethiopians might consider as written by a ferenj, a foreigner, translating such an elaborate and complicated blend of spices will do it no justice; you must just have to let it do the talking while you experience it.
So take yourself out this Ethiopian New Year and go experience the Ethiopia that has been so generously brought to you on Long Street!