x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ethiopians gather for some good old home cooking

Al Habasha Ethiopian Restaurant in the capital offers fine dining at an affordable price.

Al Habasha Ethiopian Restaurant in Abu Dhabi doubles as a social club for the country’s expatriates.
Al Habasha Ethiopian Restaurant in Abu Dhabi doubles as a social club for the country’s expatriates.

ABU DHABI // A huge plate of grilled meat and stew emits a constant plume of steam and sizzles as a waitress nimbly manoeuvres around the low tables in this cosy hideaway.

Eight mesob, or woven baskets used as tables, line the back wall. At one of the tables, Teddy Yigzaw laughs loudly at a joke told by his friend Netsanet Amare between bites of injera, the large spongy flatbread that forms the foundation of almost all Ethiopian dishes.

"I'd like to say I come here for the time with friends and to relax after work but really it's the food," says Mr Yigzaw, 36, an aircraft engineer. "This is the only place to get true Ethiopian food."

At Al Habasha Ethiopian Restaurant, the laughter, atmosphere and friendly staff are all just side dishes to the main course - authentic Ethiopian cuisine.

Sirgut Tibebu, 25, comes to Al Habasha at least twice a week. The Ethiopian, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for three years, says tibs - sauteed beef or lamb marinated in spices and served with onions and peppers - is the must-have dish.

"I like being able to come to a place that is familiar," says Ms Tibebu, who can almost always be found sitting at the third large round table from the door. "This restaurant has my culture and my food."

The capital's branch of Al Habasha, near the junction of 15th Street and Muroor Road, is one of seven in the family-owned chain.

Nestled unassumingly along a stretch of buildings that includes a spice shop, a felafel stand and a mobile phone store, the restaurant is easy to miss - unless it's Friday night when the small room becomes a raucous meeting place for regulars.

"We are not running for money," says the co-owner Sara Aradi, an Ethiopian who has been operating the restaurants with her husband, Habtamu Desta, since 2000. "We are running this for our people, so they have a place to gather and meet together."

Mrs Aradi, 40, opened the Abu Dhabi branch three years ago because patrons told her they were tired of travelling to Dubai to get their fix of wot (a spicy Ethiopian stew) for lunch and dinner.

"I am working very hard to make our food very famous," she says. "There are very many Ethiopians living here and we want to have a place for them to come and eat their favourite foods."

Eating at Al Habasha is easy on the wallet, too. The menu, which has the words "Eat today, diet tomorrow" emblazoned across its cover, features dozens of dishes Mrs Aradi hand-selected for her restaurants, none costing more than Dh50.

A meal for two including two main dishes - one chicken and one lamb - on a large piece of injera, and two drinks, costs Dh60. Home delivery is available, even when the restaurant is closed during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

Mr Yigzaw comes to the restaurant at least three times a week.

"It's not even close," he says. "I have to drive 20 minutes to get here."

Mr Yigzaw and a group of friends gather around a mesob in low wooden chairs with bulging leather seat cushions.

They share one large plate, taking turns at sampling the many different servings using the injera to scoop up the food with their fingers.

When a customer enters, the sound of traffic rushing by on 15th Street drowns out the quiet instrumental music that plays on constant rotation.

And every so often the small window separating the dining area from the kitchen opens as the chef hands out another steaming plate.

"We'll come, we'll eat, we'll hang out, we'll wait for friends," says Gezai Mekonnen, 34, a friend of Mr Yigzaw. "Before we know it, we have spent hours here."

 

jthomas@thenational.ae

Next week, a taste of Jordan at a restaurant in Sharjah