“Are you a vegetarian? So are the millions of Coptic Christian Ethiopians, for some 200 days a year. To meet the need, their ancient culture produced and refined scores of vegetarian dishes with great delicacy of flavourings. Are you a carnivore? An Ethiopian meal might lead you to think you were already in heaven” – Daniel Mesfin
Ethiopian food is well-travelled and has an ancient and layered history. Now, it has extended it’s reach to Lewes and for a few select weeks in April (Saturday 1 & 8 April) you’ll be able to have it delivered direct to your door, cooked by two cooks, Genet & Abeba, who are steadily building a reputation in the local area.
Friends for ten years, Genet and Abeba first started talking about cooking food from their native Ethiopia in 2015 after realising that the food is ‘different, healthy, delicious, tasty and everyone loves it’. A year later, words turned into action, and they cooked first at Fanny’s Cafe, and then last year, they hosted a sold-out supperclub in Lewes. Demand has been high since they first started their partnership and in April the cooks offer their services for home delivery in Lewes and Brighton out of The Feature Kitchen.
The terrain and colours that make up the landscape of Ethiopia are breathtaking: from the harsh desert to the vast semi-arid plains up to the cool well-watered highlands, where the capital Addis Ababa sits. The country has a long history, some chroniclers chart a kingdom with lineage right back to biblical times, to Solomon, and to the Queen of Sheba. Orthodox Christianity dominates but it also has a large Islamic population, and hosts a vast range of languages, and ethnicities. Over to the east, with it’s kindred state Eritrea, and the rest of the Horn of Africa, it is linked to the cultural worlds of the Indian Ocean, and Red Sea. And so it’s no surprise that when all this feeds into it’s food, that food is something special.
What makes it special? Well, it’s a good question. With a country as large and diverse as Ethiopia, it’s not a homogeneity, or a monolithic cuisine that stands out. Having said that, a ubiquitous fermented staple tends to dominate an Ethiopian meal, serving as both the cutlery and as a soft, brittle, cloth like, edible plate. It is a benefactor of being unique, as it bears little comparison to any other staple. You’ll fumble around trying to describe it, drawing for terms such as thin pancake, crumpet, or fermented flatbread – all fair enough – but all off the mark. It basks in the security of fitting no name other than it’s own, injera. The taste, and texture are easier to describe, and universal… just lovely.
What next? Well, there are any number of sauces and stews to pick out. Doro Wat, is a common dish, and also incredibly simple, onions cooked down, with chicken and added spice. But what spice! You wouldn’t be surprised that a spice mix with the regal name of Berbere does not disappoint. It appears across a range of other dishes, such as misir wat, popping up like a cameo appearance from a favourite actor, stealing scenes while also enriching the overall quality of the film. As Daniel Mesfin writes, there are any number of vegetarian dishes that have a great delicacy of flavour, from the flavoured chickpea paste (shiro) to spring greens. The variety is impressive, and the impression strong.
The wide use of vegetables, legumes and pulses is excellent. Many dishes are largely gluten and dairy free; many of the vegetarian dishes are vegan. A grass – tef - forms the basis of injera and it has a nutritional profile that holds plenty of promise of achieving ‘superfood’ status in the future, although that designation will never match the ancient grain's longevity. While Ethiopian food is not as well known as cuisines from other diaspora’s in the UK, for an African cuisine, it has managed to establish a wide and decent profile.