Arrival of the spice setters
The exotic tastes of Africa have added a new dimension to Melbourne dining, writes Nina Rousseau.
KARIM DEGAL has been at work for half an hour and already he’s sold a packet of bamia (okra) to a Somalian customer, bagged some split peas for another, and ordered 100 rounds of injera (a fermented flatbread) for a tall Ethiopian woman clad in bright yellow. “She must be having a family celebration,” says Degal, unfazed by the large quantity.
Mesnoy Injera Bakery – his family’s business – opened in Footscray four years ago, selling three types of injera (bread baked onsite by Degal’s mother) and ingredients used in East African cooking, such as mealy meal and the brick-red spice mix berbere. “Other injera shops have popped up,” says Degal. “We were one of the first to open up an injera bakery as such in Melbourne.”
Since then, a bunch of African bakeries and groceries have sprung up in Footscray (Mamma Rosina’s is a good one), along with a raft of Ethiopian restaurants including Awash and African Town. In 2005, the Sorghum Sisters (a group of women from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) started a catering company, making food from the Horn of Africa. And in 2007, three more Ethiopian restaurants opened their doors: Harambe in Footscray, The Abyssinian in Flemington, and The Horn in Collingwood.
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says there’s no doubt that Melbourne’s African community is expanding. “Ethiopians, along with the Sudanese, have been given refugee visas,” she says. And Degal has noticed that a number of Sudanese are making the trek from Swan Hill, Castlemaine and the outer eastern suburbs to buy Mesnoy’s distinctly African products.
The influx of immigrants means that Melbourne’s African restaurant scene is flourishing and Ethiopian food is, happily, here to stay. “Before, most Western people would just look at my menu . . . ,” says Abera Ayalew, who owns Cafe Lalibela with wife Salam (Lalibela was the first strictly Ethiopian restaurant to open in Melbourne in 1999). Now the regulars know their favourites by heart and “order without the menu”.
Slow cooking is the ethos of Ethiopian food: bread is fermented for one to three days, coffee is made from scratch (by roasting the green beans, hand-grinding and brewing), and berbere is sun-dried and hand-ground. “For one dish they might cook five kilograms of red onion down so it’s all caramelised,” says Enushu Taye from The Horn restaurant in Collingwood. Stews are brewed on an open fire for hours, such as the holiday dish doro wot, a buttery, berbere-spiced chicken stew that’s simmered for 15 to 20 hours; it’s expensive to make because of the amount of wood required to cook it.
Communal eating is also an integral part of the culture. First, you’re brought a big enamel tray covered with flat rounds of injera, a spongy, slightly sour bread pocked with bubbles, like an unflipped pancake. Traditionally it’s made with teff (an iron-rich Ethiopian grass that’s forbidden for commercial export) but Australian injera is more yeasty and a mix of flours, such as cornflour and red sorghum, is used instead. Ethiopians eat injera two or three times a day. It’s incredibly delicious but too much and you will waddle out stuffed.
Each dish is up-ended onto the injera and then you get down and dirty: tear off a piece from the edge, wrap it around a chunk of curry, and start scoffing. The etiquette is to eat with your right hand (although, in Melbourne forks are OK) and stick to the food in front of you – reaching across to nab a choice piece of lamb is apparently uncool behaviour.
Typical meaty dishes include richly flavoured wots (spicy stews of lamb, beef or chicken served with a boiled egg), tibs (sauteed lamb or beef cooked up with a generous scattering of green peppers and onion), and kitfo (just-cooked beef seasoned with the killer-hot chilli mitmitta).
Ethiopian cuisine is also great for vegans and vegetarians. The owner of Harambe in Footscray, Dershaye Tessema, explains that most Ethiopians are Orthodox Christian and “vegetarian specialists”, as the religious practice is to exclude animal products from their diet every Wednesday and Friday (the butchers close in Eritrea and Ethiopia on these days) and during fasting periods such as Easter. “Our mothers are very, very good (at cooking) the vegie dishes,” says Tessema.
A traditional spread (called a “beyaynetu”, a combo of about six to 10 vegetarian dishes) features slow-cooked pulses (black-eyed and split peas, lentils, chickpeas), plus braised vegie dishes, such as cabbage and carrots, green beans, sweet potato, and silverbeet and tomatoes, each dish differently spiced and deliciously buttery.
Spiced butter is the crux of Ethiopian cooking. “Butter is so important. It’s like cheese is to the Italians,” says Degal. “In Ethiopia, butter is used for almost anything. For healing people, for cooking, as a gift when people get married, during times of mourning, at funerals. Any sort of social gathering.”
The process is to mix unsalted, unclarified butter with aromatic koseret leaves, korerima (an intense variety of cardamom) and sometimes fenugreek and garlic, skimming the fat continuously from the top. “Our food without butter would not be possible to make,” says Vittorio Silvestro from The Abyssinian, in Kensington. Animal butter (from cow’s milk) is used for meaty dishes and spiced vegetable ghee is used for vegetarian dishes. “It’s cholesterol free and lighter and makes the food — vegetarian,” says Silvestro. “Some people drink butter,” adds Tessema.
In Ethiopia, combining butter with coffee bean shells is a delicacy. ” It’s mouth-watering,” says Degal. “Cholesterol goes through the roof, but if you’re walking two kilometres, three kilometres to get water it’s not going to matter much.”
Berbere (pronounced ber-ber-ray) is the other vital ingredient of Ethiopian cuisine. It’s a complex spice mix predominantly made from the serrano chilli, along with 20 to 25 spices including cumin, black pepper, garlic, coriander, fenugreek and nutmeg. Most African restaurants in Melbourne have their berbere custom-made and imported from “back home”.
“My mum organises it,” says Enushu Taye, who co-owns The Horn with Peter Harper and Matty Cottam. It’s back-breaking, labour intensive work: the chillies and herbs are sun-dried on tarpaulins then mixed and pounded by hand in a jumbo-sized mortar and pestle – the Ethiopian version of a food processor. “I’ve seen the whole process,” says Harper. “It takes three ladies three solid days to make 17 kilograms. I tried making it with them and I couldn’t keep up. It’s a hell of a long process and it’s completely authentic.”
It’s this authenticity that the restaurant owners are most proud of and keen to share with their Western customers. Dershaye Tessema has decked out Harambe as traditionally as possible. “Back home, in Ethiopia, the house is (exactly) like this,” he says, gesturing to the imitation thatched roof and “where the goats and animals would normally sleep” by the door.
For Silvestro and Rahel Ogbaghiorghis, dispelling some of the misconceptions about Ethiopia and Eritrea was an important reason to open The Abyssinian. “It is known that through food you understand a little bit more about the people,” says Silvestro. “It’s also an opportunity to let (people) know that when they hear the news about famine in Ethiopia or in Eritrea that most of the time it’s restricted to a very specific area.”
“I am proud I live to tell,” says Tessema. “I want you to know me, how I eat, how I live. It gives very good practical communication. I’m not just selling the food, I’m selling the culture.”
Berbere – Ground spice mix made from dry-fried serrano red chilli, coriander seeds, green cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, cinnamon and dry ginger.
Injera – Round, fermented flatbread (traditionally made from teff in Ethiopia).
Tibs – Fried meat (typically beef) cooked with spiced butter, onions and green peppers.
Wot – Meat (usually) cooked in a spicy stew.
Kitfo -Similar to steak tartare: barely warmed meat, typically seasoned with hot chilli, chopped onion and lemon.
Korerima – An intense variety of cardamom.
Teff – An iron-rich Ethiopian grass.
RESTAURANTS & CAFES
Ethiopian and Eritrean
277 Racecourse Road, Kensington, 9376 8754
Run by Eritrean owners Rahel Ogbaghiorghis and Vittorio Silvestro. The menu offers top examples of both cuisines – try the signature shrimp and Nile perch kulwha.
161 Nicholson Street, Footscray, 9689 9660
This laid-back corner haunt is the place to come for some classic Ethiopian nosh. Try the zil zil tibs or chilli chickpeas.
Shop 2, 64-82 Hopkins Street, Footscray, 9687 1955
Chunky wots, plenty of injera and Ethiopian MTV on the big screen. Try the lamb or beef “Awash special tibs”.
African & Middle Eastern
103 Grey Street, St Kilda, 9534 0888
A nomadic menu of mainly North African cuisine in a cosy and rustic red-walled dining room.
91 Irving Street, Footscray, 9687 0300
The decor has had a spruce in recent times and Cafe Lalibela is a fine example of Ethiopian cuisine – they do a fantastic version of derek tibs.
205-207 Nicholson Street, Footscray, 9687 7177
Head upstairs to this cute, home-style restaurant. There are special deals on Saturday like “name your price” or vegetarian buffet.
20 Johnston Street, Collingwood, 9417 4670
An arty cafe-lounge with jazz every Thursday and reggae on the first and third Saturday of every month. Try one of the eight African beers on offer.
Moroccan Soup Bar
183 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North, 9482 4240
Run by Hana Assafiri, this beloved vegetarian haunt is an institution. Arrive early – they don’t take bookings.
Nyala African Restaurant
131 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 9419 9128
A trailblazer that’s been dishing up pan-African nosh for the last 20 years. Go for a Tanzanian beer and Kenyan coconut chicken stew.
BAKERIES AND GROCERIES
Mama Rosina’s Grocery and Bakery
253A Barkly Street, Footscray, 9687 8191
Owner Ruta will sort out all your spice needs and you can also pick up some injera (bread).
Mesnoy Injera Bakery
77 Irving Street, Footscray, 9687 8855
Collect your beans, berbere and injera (bread) here: savoury, non-savoury or a light, fluffy variety made from red sorghum.
Carlton Primary School, Carlton, 9348 1574
A community-based catering company that operates from Carlton Primary School offering Horn of Africa cuisine.