I haven’t been too fond of Ethiopian cuisine. Yes, I have enjoyed a few good evenings out in Addis Ababa. But they were more about the social aspects of the meal – a group of us sitting around a table and choosing pieces of spiced meat or vegetables from a large round platter lined with the staple injera – the flatbed of sour dough, usually made of fermente teff flour.
Not only that… We usually chose a restaurant where there was dancing: the traditional eskista, where the focus of the dance, for both men and women, is on a rolling and bouncing of the shoulders – the women wearing white, embroidered dresses and tossing their long black hair.
You pick the food in pieces of injera torn from the flatbed. I seem, also, to have an aversion to eating food with my fingers. It’s my English upbringing, I suppose – and I guess you know that the English seem to pay more attention to the correct placing and use of the knives, forks and spoons, than they do to the actual cooking of the food.
But when, last Saturday, I received an invitation from Fatia to visit the Asmara restaurant in Karen, I put all those opinions and prejudices aside and gladly accepted – I have known Fatia since she was the elegant and attentive managing presence at the Osteria del Chianti restaurant in Lenana Road in early 2000.
It was certainly an elegant welcome to the Asmara. (By the way, it is on the right of the Ngong Road, not far beyond the Karen Dukas roundabout and close to the Talisman restaurant.) It is a red-tiled and white-walled building, set in an extensive Karen garden.
Just inside the main entrance a white-dressed waitress was brewing and serving coffee. Clearly, this coffee serving ritual is as much an Eritrean as an Ethiopian tradition. She was roasting green coffee beans over an open flame and then grinding them. Her low table had the boiling pot, the jebena, and an array of small, handle-less cups.
Despite the chill, we sat out in the garden, but we were soon warmed with jikos placed around the table. Fatia began with a brief introduction to Eritrean cuisine, and how it is very similar to Ethiopian cuisine. She explained that the main traditional food is the stew called tsebhi which, yes, is served with the injera – but called taita in Eritrea. It is usually accompanied with hilbet – a paste made from lentils and broad beans.
But our own first sampling of the Asmara’s offerings was not particularly Eritrean; it was a cream of leek and potato soup – to also counter the chill, as Fatia said. And this was followed by a heaped plate of battered Calamari del Casa – one of the day’s special dishes.
And then the centre-piece arrived: the huge and injera-covered silver platter. There was the heated Tsalili Tibsi goat meat; Keyh Tibsi beef fillet; Zigni beef fillet with korarima spice (Ethiopian cardamom) and spiced butter; Tsibhi Dhuro chicken mixed with onions and korarima spices; and Shiro Tibsi split peas. For the first time I enjoyed it.
The barbecued goat meat was crisp and crunchy; the spices were strong and aromatic. And I wasn’t bothered about messing my fingers!
The desert was something, I guess, universal: apple cake with ice-cream. And, of course, we finished off with the very special coffee. Oh yes, the house wines were good too.
So the Asmara menu is quite eclectic – with a range from pepper steaks to pizzas. But the mains are, of course, the Eritrean dishes. Let me give you more. Especially if you are new to Eritrean dishes I suggest you could try the Asmara Special: pan-fried beef fillet strips, with green pepper, berbere powder and tomato – served with a traditional beef soup and vegetables.
And berbere powder is a blend of Eritrean or Ethiopian spices – including chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, and so on. The price is Sh.1,600. Or for sharing you could go for the Asmara Mixed Plate. The menu says it gives you “a taste of everything” – three meats served with assorted vegetables. The price is Sh1,400.
There are a number of vegetarian options. First up on the menu is the Asmara vegetables at Sh900: a mix of cabbage, kale, potatoes, peas, lentils and beetroot in a spicy Eritrean sauce.
The menu has a Kids’ Corner, too, with the likes of fish fingers or beef burgers and fries. The garden has an assortment of climbing frames and slides. So during weekends, this is a great place for a family lunch. So if you are reading this on Sunday morning, you have time to get out along the Ngong Road!
John Fox is Managing Director of iDC