Getting to know what's wat... richly flavoured Ethiopian dishes
Ethiopian food was missing from the Irish culinary landscape for many years, until Mel Roddy brought his native cuisine to a new Dublin pop-up. Katy McGuinness has the scoop on these simple yet richly flavoured dishes. Photography by Frank McGrath
I'm sitting with my daughter in the Cloud Café on Dublin's North Strand, looking at a large round platter on which small portions of beguilingly fragrant food are arranged on top of a spongy, pancake-like bread. None of the dishes are familiar to us.
As a restaurant critic, I'm lucky enough to have eaten in many of Ireland's best restaurants, and my holidays are often food-driven, with meals planned months in advance. But I've never tried Ethiopian food before, and I'm wondering how it works as there appears to be no cutlery. Mel Roddy, whose Gursha (the word translates as 'mouthful') pop-up this is, has presented us with a basket of more of the spongy, mushroom-coloured bread (it's called injera, he tells us), instructed us to use it as our knife and fork, and left us to get on with it.
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A few minutes later and our inhibitions have been parked. We're scooping happily - albeit inexpertly, if the smears of food across our faces and the splodges of sauce on the white tablecloth are anything to go by - as we work our way through the array of dishes.
In the bowl in the centre of the platter is doro wat, Ethiopia's national dish, a chicken stew made with drumsticks in a berbere sauce with onions, served with hard-boiled eggs. Berbere is a spice mix used in Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine and although every cook has his or her own blend, it will typically contain cloves, fenugreek, cumin, coriander, allspice, nutmeg, chillies, garlic and ginger. It lends a rich, red colour and musky, intense flavour to the dish.
Berbere is used in many traditional Ethiopian wat, which is usually translated as 'stew', although most are more akin to curries: long-simmered dhals, and vegetables cooked together slowly, so that the flavours meld together in that mysterious alchemy that happens when cooks are not in a hurry. This wat has warming, gentle heat but others can be blow-your-head-off fiery, so a house-made cottage cheese is served as an antidote to the spiciness.
The other meat dishes on the platter are yebeg tibs, strips of marinated lamb with garlic, cherry tomatoes and peppers, and yebeg alicha, lamb with garlic, onions and turmeric, both of which are tender and tasty.
And there are vegetables, many vegetables, including gomen (greens cooked with herbs and garlic), shiro wat (a smooth purée of ground split peas with garlic and onion in berbere sauce), keysir wat (beetroot, potatoes and onions with ginger) and ater kik alicha (split peas with garlic, onions and turmeric). Vegans and vegetarians can dispense with the chicken and lamb and include other vegetable dishes, and, for those who prefer not to share, there is the option to have one's own individual plate.
"In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Wednesday and Friday are fasting days, when people consume no animal products," explains Roddy, "so many of the most popular dishes in Ethiopian cuisine are either vegan or vegetarian. And because Ethiopia is the only country in Africa never to have been colonised, its cuisine has remained pure and unchanged for millennia, unlike other African cuisines which have evolved to reflect influences from outside."
Ethiopian cuisine is one that depends on slow, attentive cooking rather than on exotic or costly ingredients. Traditionally, women are the cooks - patiently tending to pots over the fire, coaxing flavour out of a small number of simple, ordinary ingredients, many of which - such as onions, carrots, potatoes, beetroot and cabbage - are year-round staples in Ireland.
Using spices that grow in Ethiopia (and are readily available here), the dishes are nuanced and richly flavoured, the meat tender, the vegetables sweet and soft, and the pulses given unexpected complexity.
Although the food appears disarmingly simple, the making of injera - the spongy, sour, pancake-like fermented bread that's used instead of cutlery - is challenging.
Injera is made from teff, an ancient grain indigenous to Ethiopia, the export of which was banned for six years in an attempt by the Ethiopian government to avoid the problems that some countries in South America suffered when their indigenous grain - quinoa - became fashionable all around the world, pushing up the price beyond a point at which it was affordable to the people who depended upon it.
The fine grain - the size of a poppy seed - comes in a variety of colours ranging from white and red to dark brown and is ground into flour. It's a staple of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine, gluten-free, and high in both calcium and resistant starch, a type of dietary fibre that's thought to have health benefits in terms of the management of blood sugar and colon function. Ethiopia produces 90pc of the world's teff.
Injera gets its texture from the gentle steaming of a wet dough that's first been fermented for several days. Even Yotam Ottolenghi admits to being defeated by it.
"Its earthy acidity is the perfect complement to the region's rich stews and soups," he wrote, "but some foods are best left in the hands of experts. Injera is an art that involves tending to a rather capricious mother batter on a regular basis, and relies on some serious experience (also, often reserved to mothers)."
At the Gursha pop-up, Roddy has enlisted the services of two Ethiopian women as cooks. The first, Werke Getachew, has been a family friend for many years; the second, Yagerenesh Tadess (known as 'Mamay'), he met through the Ethiopian embassy, where she used to work.
For Roddy, who was adopted from Ethiopia in 1995 at the age of seven along with his two sisters, Susie and Elsa, and grew up in Bayside, Co Dublin, the pop-up is the manifestation of an idea that he's been working on for four years.
"There's an Ethiopian restaurant in every European city bar Dublin," he says. "When I was growing up, every time we went over to London or Manchester for a football match, we'd always go to one. There are more than 30 in London alone, and many in Toronto and California, too.
"Even though there are only about 1,500 Ethiopians in Ireland, Irish people who have lived in Ethiopia or in other cities where there are Ethiopian restaurants are familiar with the cuisine. When the website All the Food did an online poll asking its readers to say which cuisine was missing from Ireland that they'd most like to see, the one that came out on top was Ethiopian."
Last year, Roddy gave up his job in KBC and travelled to Ethiopia on holiday with his mother, two sisters, and Elsa's boyfriend, Stephen Somers, visiting Addis Ababa and the Tigray region, where he has family. It was an opportunity to explore Ethiopian food in more depth and, particularly when he witnessed Stephen's enthusiastic reaction to the food - "He's from south Dublin and had never eaten any of it before" - only confirmed that he wanted to pursue the idea of bringing Ethiopian food to Ireland. When he returned home, he enrolled in a business start-up course and began trying to put shape to his idea.
"The food doesn't really suit the street-food model, because it's all about sitting down and sharing, but setting up an actual restaurant from scratch is too big a step. Lisa Cope from All the Food has been giving me advice and she suggested that I set up a supper club, so I went along to eat at Nick Reynolds' Lil Portie Jamaican supper club in Rathmines and really liked it. Nick's given me advice too, and Stephen and my sisters have been a huge help.
"I tried lots of different coffee shops to see if one of them would be interested in giving us a home, and eventually Paula Sneyd at Cloud Café said that she was interested. We did a trial run for her staff and friends - Paula was happy and gave the thumbs-up."
Roddy has drafted his sisters and some of Cloud Café's regular staff in to help with serving tables while he manages front of house.
On the first night of the pop-up, the restaurant is full of customers; all appear to be getting the hang of the scooping without too much difficulty.
At the end of the meal - dessert is a chocolate brownie - we wash our hands in a finger bowl.
It's not just the cooking that's slow when it comes to Ethiopian food - friends and family gather to share communal meals that go on for hours, finishing up with coffee served strong and black. At the pop-up, the evening ends with a traditional coffee ceremony, a choreographed ritual that starts with raw beans which are roasted in front of the guests and then brewed in an Ethiopian coffee cup called a jebena.
The Gursha pop-up will be running on Friday and Saturday evenings for the next few months. If all goes well, Mel Roddy hopes that it may lead to a permanent restaurant. Dinner costs €25 per head and can be booked and paid for in advance at gursha.eventsmart.com/gursha-ethiopian-supper-club. Wine and soft drinks are available on the night.