I can’t truthfully say that I’ve never had Ethiopian food before. A few months ago I was fortunate enough to eat at Adulis in Oval – which is actually not an Ethiopian restaurant at all, but Eritrean.
So what’s the difference?
A history lesson (a brief one)
Ethiopia and Eritrea were once the same country, and their separation and the border conflicts which would ensue made for what was perhaps one of the bloodiest wars ever fought in the Horn of Africa. The people of both countries belong to the same ethnic group and share a common heritage – both Ethiopia and Eritrea were occupied by Italy, both are home to a substantial Muslim community, and both Amharinya and Tigrinya, the languages spoken in both countries, are semitic languages which are written in the same alphabet. The Christian population in both countries belong to the Orthodox Coptic Church. (Source: The Sudan Tribune, December 2, 2012) Yet they remain arch-rivals, with a history of violence that is so fresh – a border war in 1998-2000 led to the death of some 100,000 people – that I could never in good faith lump them together for the purposes of this project.
So I set out to see if authentic Ethiopian food was any different from the cuisine of its brother from another mother. My first mistake: taking the bus to Kentish Town. At 6 pm on a Thursday night, this took 55 minutes from Tottenham Court Road on the number 134. Top tip: take the tube.
But we made it at last, just after 7 – any later, and we might not have gotten a table – the Queen of Sheba on Fortress Road is a tiny little intimate venue, and I hadn’t booked. Luckily for us there was a table just perfect for three nestled in a corner by the window, surrounded by traditional artifacts and African art.
Injera with stew is the staple of both Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. Injera, a large, flat, spongy sourdough flatbread, is torn into small pieces and used to pick up dishes of both meat and vegetables which are served atop a communal piece of bread. In both countries, utensils are rarely used – so the injera is not only part of your meal, but it is also your fork, your knife, and your plate. It also comes served in a basket, rolled up like a little serviette.
At some African restaurants you will be given the choice to eat with your hands but there may be a place setting already on the table when you arrive, for those who can’t get on without their creature comforts. I was delighted that this wasn’t the case at the Queen of Sheba – no forks, no spoons, no knives, no napkins. Old school.
We chose three dishes to share – the doro & ingudai (chicken in mushroom sauce with ginger and garlic, served on a sizzling hot plate with fried onion), the kik alich’a we’t (split yellow peas with ginger and green chilli), and the misir we’t (red lentils simmered in the chef’s ‘special’ hot sauce). When they arrived, our waitress placed each one delicately on top of our large injera, and left us to our own devices.
Now I suppose communal eating isn’t for everyone. I happen to really enjoy it – and according to Ethiopian tradition, those who eat from the same plate will never betray one another. I also like eating with my hands, big time.
So we sat, and we tore, and we grabbed and we ate and we did it until we had eaten all of our injera serviettes and then also our plate. The chicken was divine (not so much so at Adulis) and both vegetarian dishes were so tasty it was hard to stop eating – at Adulis as well, I remember thinking that the chef really had his finger on the pulse when it came to the lentils.
What is the difference between Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine then? I couldn’t see one. Like I said, they were once upon a time not very long ago the same country, so much like how in Canada we have poutine and in the US they have poutine, just bigger (bad example – only Canada has poutine, but you get the gist) in Ethiopia you have one dish that is nominally identical to its Eritrean counterpart but which may have a different name or a subtly different flavour. Same same – but different, or not. Ethiopia and Eritrea may have many things which divide them; to the naked eye though, the food just ain’t one of them. Internet world – correct me if I’m wrong.
I found my experience at the Queen of Sheba better than at Adulis, but this comes down to the ambiance – I can’t remember the last time I sat in a restaurant for nearly three hours. In London, there’s always somewhere else to be – but not if I can linger over a bottle of St. George’s Ethiopian beer and not be asked to give up my table to somebody else. So I ate, and I drank, and I lingered – until I realised how long it was going to take me to get home. That said, my night was every bit worth the trek.
Need to know:
Queen of Sheba
12 Fortress Road
020 7284 3947
Nearest Tube: Kentish Town
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 12pm -1130pm, Sunday 10-10.