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Soak up Ethiopian flavours with injera

TGIFOOD

ADDIS IN JOZI

Soak up Ethiopian flavours with injera

A generic photo of injera with its toppings. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

In a little piece of Addis Ababa in Jozi central, doro wot, injera and berbere are only the starting point in a journey of spicy discovery.

 

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food “rescued” from the food chain. Please support them here. 

There are good and not-so-good injeras; just-cooked injera, thinner and with a sourdough flavour, another quite malty and dark brown. Injera at parties and markets can look like rolled up face cloths and don’t taste dissimilar.

Things don’t change too much from time to time at this particular Ethiopian centre in downtown Jozi. Joburgers refer to the general area and sometimes even this building as Little Addis. However, the entrance to the vestibule keeps looking bafflingly different. Today there seem to be loose-woven curtains where I remember silver trays, coffee goods and feather dusters.

Many of the old high-rise medical buildings in Jeppe Street, also Rahima Moosa Street, east of the post office building are very Ethiopian now, many of the signs in Amharic. This is the building I know best. There’s a small plaque, semi-obliterated, reading Medical Arts 220 Jeppe, but I can never find that immediately. 

The local Ethiopians call this building Majesty and I’ve tried asking why. I’ve also heard it called Haile Selassie and perhaps that is the clue. Today I’m going in with my friend Samson and he doesn’t know either.

Ethiopian Samson Mulugeta came to South Africa as bureau chief for New York’s Newsday and stayed in Jozi. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Samson Mulugeta is Ethiopian, born and partly raised there, whose family moved to the States and then he came to South Africa 10 years later as Africa bureau chief for New York’s Newsday. He remained in Jozi. He’s agreed to come for lunch with me so that we can try extra dishes and I can find out more than I generally do without any Amharic as on my previous food visits here. 

It’s only when we’re happily seated at both my and Samson’s favourite restaurant, Berkusefad, in the building, the one with the covered balcony area on the first floor, that Samson casually mentions he’s fasting. It seems he’s not going to be eating with me so that we could have tried more dishes. 

Samson is an Ethiopian Coptic Christian and they fast a about 180 days a year on various occasions and more for the clergy. Then they eat vegan dishes and fish. But Samson is fasting over Ramadan in sympathy with a Muslim friend. Eid is not yet in sight.

Samson is always drawn to new interests, and fascinated by various experiences. I’ve known him a long time. He used to have the Melville Grill in Seventh Street as well as the first formal Ethiopian restaurant in South Africa, Abyssynica, also in Melville.

The dimples of the injera soak up juices and sauces perfectly. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Today, as far as trying new and interesting Ethiopian dishes, it looks as though I’m on my own here.

Generally, ordering the big round injera with heaps of flavoured sauces is what’s done. The effect is like a giant paint palette with dollops of colours and, of course, delicious tastes. It’s not the only way. I’ve seen people eating bowls and plates of individual items too, in this and other Ethiopian restaurants. However, most Ethiopians like to share meals and such injera platters are ideal for that.

On the giant injera go a chosen variety of meat stews, other meat dishes and vegetables, sometimes even salads. The dimples of the injera soak up juices and sauces perfectly. Then the injera becomes both the plate and the eating utensil as you tear off sections and pick up the foods in that piece, then another and another. 

I’ve realised over time that there are good and not-so-good injeras. In this building are two bakeries and I’ve seen just-cooked injera, thinner but wholesome looking with a sourdough flavour, another quite malty dark brown kind. I’ve also eaten injera at parties and markets that I often think looks like rolled up face cloths and doesn’t taste dissimilar. This is a pretty good injera, made with the lighter colour tef, often preferred and a real taste of the fermentation process that starts it all, like sourdough.

South Africa is a major tef growing country. The smallest grain or grass in the world is high protein, high calcium and gluten free, as are all these really ancient grains like quinoa and spelt. 

Berkusefad is not a touristy restaurant by any means. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Tibs is a great favourite, both of mine and most Ethiopians, a sign of a family’s generosity. This is not a touristy restaurant by any means. Most people that eat here are Ethiopians or Somalis. It’s one of the first heaps on this injera, I notice with delight. Tibs is sliced beef, though it can sometimes be mutton or goat, butter-fried with garlic and onions. Once, here, I saw a smoking portable brazier being taken to two Ethiopian businesswomen. They insisted I try the contents of the urn inside. It was tibs, just presented differently with some injera on the side.

I should mention the supposedly very hot sauce that accompanies most dishes and always these communal injera meals, called berbere. It’s on the table, made with powdered chilli and cinnamon, fenugreek, ginger and cardamom, often also mint. But the thing that really adds major heat is an orangey-red pile of powder called mitmita, almost purely birdseye chilli, sometimes with a little clove or cardamom and salt, standing there for dipping your injera-wrapped food for a wallop of heat.

At good Ethiopian restaurants sides of beef mainly hang near the entrance where diners can assess them. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

As opposed to the rich tibs, there’s a heap of the very lean, very freshly minced, raw kitfo, eaten like steak tartare, though sometimes warmed slightly in butter and a bit of mitmita, sometimes, like here, with the addition of some minced spinach. In addition to a cubed meat raw dish called tere siga, It is the pride of the restaurant butcher. 

At this and many good Ethiopian restaurants sides of beef mainly hang in a section near the entrance where potential diners can assess them. I cannot really get more information from Berkusefad’s butcher, jolly though he is and I may not use his name. 

Samson smiles and says Ethiopia is not much for the vegetarian. He’s been wonderfully helpful, identifying the foods on my injera. There are some vegetable based ones too. I consider the Christian fast dishes, wondering.

Wots are the Ethiopian equivalent of curries and, though beef and often mutton are common in sauces and dishes, chicken is offered respectfully to guests on more special occasions, in the form of Doro Wot. Here I have it anyway. The brown meat of the chicken is cooked with butter, beloved of Ethiopian cooking, onion, cardamom and berbere. A hardboiled egg is buried inside.

A magnificently textured fava beans dish called Fuul is a pretty heap here with tomato and pepper pieces, often swirled with yoghurt.

Then a second vegetable dish of collard greens comes under the heading of Beyainatu, which covers a selection of vegetable items often for fasters,  represented today as one green feature on my injera, obviously lovingly prepared for as much satisfying taste as they are known to be. 

Samson has broken down and is at least sipping some tea. He’s going to break down even further, it seems, and order from the floor above something called a Spriss, apparently a colour-layered fruit drink. His son is having a party, using Samson’s apartment and after a call it seems Samson has to go there sooner than he’d imagined. 

The Spriss, coloured swirls of surprising fruit. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I decide to stay here for a while on my own. The centre of the city is not always the most salubrious area but I have always found the Ethiopian area to be comfortably safe.

After my lunch, I still want an Ethiopian coffee and there are many coffee ceremony spots throughout this building. There is a woman I don’t recognise upstairs where I was often used to having coffee pre-Covid. I ask her about the Spriss and she settles me in her chair. Her English is not excellent but I think we have a deal. She’s very busy with a food processor and I see her feeding papaya into it. It looks promising and I gaze around. Things on the shelves have changed and I do see shampoo and conditioner products that appear to feature snail ingredients. The lovely white and embroidered clothing is just where it was, among glittering trays for injera and coffee ceremonies.

My spriss is a lot more exciting than I bargained for. It has swirls of papaya and avocado and I think I also taste tamarind. Over the festive looking drink is red fruit syrup.

I love Ethiopian coffee, always part of a ceremony or smoky process, effected by women. There’s something about it that’s so ideal with the freshly popped salted corn that comes with it. However, the spriss is filling and there’s that story about injera swelling to triple its size when eaten. And it’s late. I wander back down the desultory looking, slightly unsavoury smelling staircase, past lifts that still seem to work, to street level. 

Today, maybe because of the curtains in the vestibule of Majesty, I can’t see much of an impressively large mosaic artwork by Cecily Nash, commissioned in a much less diverse, less delicious time of Jozi central. DM/TGIFood

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