Food has a funny way of giving me a fervent appetite for a country, and after falling in love with Ethiopian food I have found myself whiling away the hours reading up about the calendar (it’s currently 2006 in Ethiopia), the magical looking Amharic script and the interesting historic sites (St. George’s church looks incredible).
A while back I was living in a flat on Caledonian Road, a very interesting and unique area of London. The comfortably scruffy road is sandwiched in between prisons, parks and palatial homes and it has a sense of community unlike any other central London street. You’ll struggle to find any Indian restaurants, however almost every other nationality seems to represented: Greek, Turkish, Italian, Georgian and… Ethiopian!
There are plenty of Ethiopian restaurants and of the few I have been to: Queen of Sheba, Merkato, Addis, and Menelik, Menelik (277 Caledonian Road) is by far my favourite. The unassuming restaurant with a faded, peeling sign has only a few tables and is very plain inside, especially compared to Addis. The restaurant is named after the Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and a portrait of him on a rearing horse adorns the menu and a wall (places with pictures of horses always get extra points).
Ethiopian food is very similar to Indian food – they share a lot of the same spices. However Ethiopian restaurants don’t use butter or ghee, so the food is lighter. (Obviously I am only talking about Indian restaurants here, home cooked Indian food can be very light and healthy too.)
All dishes are served on the Ethiopian flatbread known as injera. This sour, spongy pancake is most similar to a South Indian appam, but quite unique in flavour. It is made using teff flour traditionally, and is cooked in a flat pan like a crepe so the bottom becomes smooth and brown and the top is porous, making it an ideal utensil. You use your hand to break off pieces of the spongy bread and scoop up the food. The injera underneath the food soaks up all the flavour and juices, so you use it as a utensil and a plate then eat it! No washing up required.
For those who feel uncomfortable eating with their hands (there’s always one), I’m sure they’re happy to provide non-edible cutlery.
My favourite dish at Menelik is the mesir wat – a very spicy lentil stew with absolutely incredible flavours, it only costs £5 and there’s enough served to feed a small army! Anyway this was the dish I decided to attempt to make last night: mesir wat and injera.
To make this, you first have to make the spice mix (berbere). I used this recipe as a guide, however changed a few things.
For the berbere:
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp whole cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon whole fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp whole mustard seeds
½ cup paprika
1/3 cup ground chili powder
2 tsp ginger powder
1 tsp ground nutmeg
large pinch rock salt
1 tsp sugar
I fried 5 shallots and 5 cloves of garlic in a hot pan with oil for around 4-5 minutes, then added some water and about 5 tablespoons of the berbere mix, I let this sizzle away in the pan for a couple of minutes then transferred everything to a blender and whizzed it into a smooth, deep red paste. The scent at this point won’t be great – don’t panic!
I then poured the spice-onion-garlic paste back into the pan with 1/2 cup of water and 1 and a half cups of red split lentils and kept stirring and adding more water until the lentils were cooked through, this will take over half an hour.
The recipe above called to scorch the lentils at the bottom of the pan and then stir them in with the fresher ones on top and keep repeating the procedure. However I was in a rush and wanted to avoid the painful washing up involved with burnt food at the bottom of a pan!
In the meantime, we prepared the dough for the injera, using this recipe for rice and wheat flour injera as we weren’t sure where to buy teff flour. It turned out really well in my opinion! The dough rose to a beautiful white spongy dome which we then mixed with boiling water to make a thick white paste which, with some mixing turned into a batter. We poured the batter into a hot frying pan in a spiral until the bottom of the pan was covered in batter then, shaking the pan occasionally, let it cook through. You don’t want to flip the injera, only cook it on one side.
I was surprised by how well it worked! It was definitely too thick, but it had the delicious yeasty, slightly sour taste and the spongy texture was spot on. Next time we try it, we’ll have to look for teff flour I think, or maybe try corn flour! So many possibilities…
The mesir wat was also very good – notes of cloves, cinnamon and black pepper definitely dominated though and while I love those flavours, the mesir wat i’ve had at Menelik has a tangy tomato richness too. Perhaps in Ethiopia Take 2 i’ll add some stock and fresh tomatoes – see what happens!