Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ethiopian food at Cafe Lalibela

Right: Mesobs. Though used here for display only, this is the traditional communal table used in Ethiopian meals.

I was gonna post this over a year ago, but for whatever reason (laziness, forgetfulness, take your pick) I'm only doing it now. In any case, back whenever it was, I took a few of the gang (Frankie, Carissa, Sheree, Carpell) out to try some Ethiopian cuisine.

Footscray is the home of Melbourne's Ethiopian community, with 6 or 7 restaurants within several blocks of each other. Cafe Lalibela (91 Irving St) is seemingly the most established, and together with Fasil African Restaurant, located a few doors down and run by the owner's brother-in-law, they make the tastiest food of the lot.

I find Ethiopia's unique culture to be a particularly interesting one, and its food to be familiar yet distinct and exotic, one of the last great undiscovered cuisines. While many people's knowledge of the country extends to little more than the devastating famines that formerly wracked the country, Ethiopians have a rich culinary tradition. Spices, both hot and fragrant, are used more extensively than anywhere outside Asia. The influence of both Islamic cultures and the Coptic Church (which prescribes many days of vegetarian fasting) are noticeable on the cuisine.

Oh, and if not for the ancient Ethiopians, we would not have that marvellous concoction known as coffee. You can get coffee roasted on the spot and brewed in the traditional Ethiopian style here, but you need to order ahead as the process is fairly involved.

Right: Ethiopian beers - I admit I'm hardly someone who really appreciates or knows much about beer, but these seemed to agree with me.

If you've never eaten Ethiopian food, you need to know a few basic things. Firstly, its spicy, although not excessively so; mind you, apparently the food in Ethiopia is mouth-blastingly spicy.
Secondly, wash your hands, because there is no cutlery. You can get some if you insist, but that would just be silly. Use your hands to tear off a piece of injera (sourdough pancake) and use that to scoop up the food.
Thirdly, it is a truly communal dining experience, in that you all eat from the same large plate. So better to dine with friends with reasonable hygiene standards.

Aside from the spongy and slightly tangy injera, two main flavours define Ethiopian cuisine. One is berbere, a bright red blend of chili and between 10 and 15 other spices. The other is niter kebbeh, a type of ghee (clarified butter) with various herbs added in the clarifying process.
Probably the most popular dishes are Doro Wat, chicken and boiled egg in a red gravy thick with onions and berbere; and Tibs, stir fried beef or lamb pieces with green chili and niter kebbeh. Vegetarians are well-catered for, with a number of lentil and bean dishes, slow-cooked and richly flavoured.

Clockwise from top:
Doro wat (chicken and boiled egg stew with berbere); Shiro wat (chickpea powder with berbere); Kik alicha (yellow split peas); Mesir wat (brown lentils with berbere); Garden salad with green chilies; Mesir alicha (brown lentils); Derek tibs (beef with onions and green chilies); Ful (stewed broad beans) with ayib (yoghurt cheese).
All served on
injera (sourdough pancake).

One of the great pleasures of the meal is towards the end, polishing off the last of the injera, which has soaked up all the gravy and ghee from the mains.

You're unlikely to spend more than $15-20 per person here, but with its deliciously rich, spicy and carb-heavy food, you'll definitely leave feeling full and satisfied.


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