Ethiopian cooking is a family affair - for chef and diners
A new restaurant is bringing an interesting and sometimes overlooked cuisine to Nottingham. ERIK PETERSEN visited Habesha...
A PAINTING on a wall in Habesha restaurant shows what Sami Yeamer describes as a traditional Ethiopian mealtime scene. A handful of people, grown-ups and children, sit around a single, large plate of food.
“The way it’s served is the way to keep family and friends together,” says Sami, who owns Habesha with wife Maite Hailu.
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He recalls his grandfather telling him that to sit down and eat together, you had to first make peace.
“That’s the kind of love we want to bring here,” he says.
“We want to bring families together.”
Ethiopian dining is communal dining, and that’s what they do at Habesha. They’ve got all sorts of Ethiopian food on the menu, but if you’re with others and really want to have an experience, a mahaberawi might be best.
A sort of sampler platter of beef, lamb and chicken dishes with vegetables, pickles and salad, it’s served in a large, round plate on a bed of injera, a pancake-like flatbread that’s an Ethiopian staple. It also serves as your cutlery - you rip off chunks, scoop up the food and eat mains and “cutlery” all at once.
Other favourite dishes include shiro wot, a powdered chickpea dish, and doro wot, a dish featuring chicken, seasoned butter, other seasonings and a boiled egg.
“We used to ask the grandmothers and grandfathers why they cook the traditional doro wot with the egg in,” Sami says. “And they say they don’t want to separate the chicken from the egg.”
Afterwards, diners can wash it down with cups of traditional Ethiopian coffee, roasted and ground in the restaurant and served in elegant Ethiopian coffee pots.
Before Habesha, you’d usually have to go south to find this kind of cooking in England.
“We have been to London and eaten (Ethiopian food) there,” Sami says. “But we wanted to do it in Nottingham.”
Sami and Maite came to the UK, and Nottingham, in 2006. He’s originally from the capital, Addis Ababa, while she comes from the western Ethiopian market town of Nekemte. Her family owns a restaurant there, and her mother helped by sending proper Ethiopian spices and other foodstuffs when they were setting up the restaurant.
The family ethos also extends to Sami and Maite’s children. They have three, aged five-and-a-half, four and five months, and they can often be seen in the restaurant as well. The oldest has taken to the notion of family and hospitality.
“She’s really friendly,” Sami says. “Everyone who comes in, she will greet. She won’t say ‘customers’, she’ll say ‘mum, your friends are here’.”
Lately, she’s had plenty of “friends” to greet. Since they opened, members of the local Ethiopian and Eritrean communities have quickly discovered the restaurant, their first opportunity in Nottingham to enjoy cuisine from home. Somalian and Sudanese people in Nottingham also started popping in, as have folks from other corners of Africa.
But Sami and Maite don’t want to simply operate a haven for expatriates. They are seeing a steady word-of-mouth increase in all sorts of customers, and that’s what they most want.
“We were happy that we had English people coming in,” Sami says.
“We want to teach our culture.“
Setting up their own restaurant hasn’t been easy. Sami also works at Boots, and with that plus three little ones there are some long days.
Even Maite’s mum, the restaurateur, said this would not be an easy way to make a living.
“She said ‘doing Ethiopian food is like doing a wedding every day’,” Sami says.
But since arriving in the UK, they’ve had this dream.
“All the time I’ve been working, we’ve always thought of doing this business,” Sami says.
When they finally got the chance, friends and family pitched in to get the place ready.
Now, they’ve got more plans. In the short term, they’re bringing in Ethiopian beer and wine. Longer term, they talk about opening something bigger, maybe also a club.
For now though, they want people who have never had Ethiopian food before to come through their doors and ask questions.
Then, they want them to sit around big plates and eat together.
Habesha Ethiopian restaurant is at 71-73 Alfreton Road. Call 0115 923 2789.