It’s hard to overstate the transformative effect of Ethiopian food on my idea of “going out for dinner”. Since discovering the cuisine here in London a couple of years ago, the delicious blends of aromatic spices with deceptively simple ingredients have shaken up my palate and induced a ravenous single-mindedness when it comes to choosing a restaurant to dine at. There’s no turning back now!
I was lucky to live in North London for a year or so, in which a cluster of Ethiopian restaurants can be found. My first experience of Ethiopian food was at Kokeb, a tiny family-run restaurant tucked away on a quiet residential street, Roman Way, near Caledonian Road. The place is beautifully decorated and always busy; the food, of course, is heaven-sent.
Kokeb celebrated its 15th birthday in 2014 and, impressively, is run single-handedly by a lady named Getenesh. You won’t forget her in a hurry – she’s funny, charismatic and stern, and doesn’t allow food wastage, taking it as a personal insult to her cooking.
Because we’re officially regulars there now, I’ve tried pretty much everything on the menu – Getenesh, with her encyclopaedic memory, even calls us out when we try to order a dish we’ve had before, urging us to sample something new.
Even so, I have my preferences: a firm favourite is Key Minchet Abish, a divine spicy beef dish seasoned with ginger, cardamom and onion and described as “a dish for royalty” (I no longer eat this, as I’m vegetarian, but the flavours exist in other dishes so I don’t miss out). I’d also highly recommend the Ye-Misir Key Wot (red lentils) and Ye-Alicha Kik Wot (yellow split peas), both simmered in wonderfully flavoursome spices.
Ethiopian food is eaten hand to mouth with injera – a flat, spongy sourdough bread with which you can scoop up fingerfuls of the other dishes. Vegetables aren’t merely a side order in Ethiopian cuisine; they actually form the core ingredients of many dishes. This makes it perfect for vegetarians, or even vegans.
The plot of my love affair with Ethiopian cuisine positively thickened when I found Kokeb closed one day. Such was my craving that another Ethiopian restaurant had to be sought with immediate effect. My search led me to the wonderful Wolkite Kitfo.
Situated right near the Arsenal Emirates Stadium on Hornsey Road, Wolkite Kitfo is run by a very friendly, gracious family and offers dishes which are nothing short of sumptuous. Like Kokeb, it’s very affordable; two people can easily have their fill for less than £20.
A mixture of vegetable dishes served on injera. [Image: Wolkite Kitfo Facebook]
I’d highly recommend the honey wine, as well as the curried beef dish (the proper name of which escapes me) and alicha wot. You also can’t go wrong with mixed vegetable dishes – they’re a great way of getting to sample as many flavours as possible on the delicious spectrum of Ethiopian cuisine.
Another of my favourite Ethiopian restaurants in the area is Mesi’s Kitchen. Run by lovely, smiling Mesi, the best thing about this place is the fact that they serve all the usual dishes in ‘side dish’ form, so you can pick one main and one side and mix them all up a bit. It’s affordable and has a relaxed ambience, tucked discreetly on the busy Holloway Road nearer the Highbury Corner end.
I haven’t yet discovered the magical ingredient in Ethiopian food, but I suspect it might be something to do with the special Berbere sauce, which adds a spicy yet delicate flavour. Anything which contains it, I’m guaranteed to love.
I wouldn’t like to call it an addiction … but it’s pretty close. Having recently moved to Hackney, one of my biggest worries was that my proximity to Ethiopian restaurants would dramatically shrink. Thankfully, there will always be a brilliant excuse to head back to Caledonian Road and Holloway – but in the meantime I haven’t been disappointed, and instead visit the charming Andu Cafe on Kingsland Road. It’s a 10-minute cycle from my home, all the food is vegan, and their takeaway costs just £5 – injera included. It’s spectacular value for money and delicious.