Ethiopian Restaurant: Eating With Your Hands

When retracing the evolutionary steps of cuisine, it’s no surprise to be led to the birthplace of man … Ethiopia

Services | Gretchen Gatzke | September 2011

This was not a restaurant, or at least it didn’t feel like one. Red upholstered benches lined the walls and brass lamps lit up cozy eating corners. The ceiling fans gave a most welcome movement to the stagnant, heavy air as the heat on this particular evening made it seem as if we really were in Ethiopia. It was the aptly named Ethiopian Restaurant, at Währinger Straße 15 in the 9th District, one of the newest, and surely the most exotic, offerings on the Vienna scene.

We arrived at 19:30, just as evening was falling. For the most part it was quiet. Ethiopian pop was playing subtly in the background and one customer was drinking a beer outside.

The warm wood paneling and the center staircase spoke not for a restaurant, but for Grandma’s cottage. Warm colours and delicious smells, African art and vinyl floral-print tablecloths all beckoned us to take a seat and have a nice hearty meal.

And then Seifu appeared with a big smile on his face. He owns the restaurant with his wife Tewabech, who is also the chef. After living in Vienna and working for OPEC for 35 years, Seifu retired two years ago. They decided to open an establishment for Ethiopian cuisine in the 9th District and it’s been running strong since February.

Seifu ushered us to a table, smiling all the while, and said simply, "honey wine". We shrugged and nodded our heads as he scampered off into the back of the restaurant.

Tej, as it is called in Ethiopia, is a mead flavored with powdered leaves and buckthorn twigs. Here, they make the wine themselves and a quarter liter goes for five euros. Seifu brought out the tej, served in bereles – spherical, laboratory-looking flasks with lipped necks. He showed us how to drink it, holding the neck between the index and middle fingers and tipping ever so delicately.

It smelled like "new wine" and its taste had a vinegar nuance so that it was not sickly sweet nor as viscous as traditional mead. Sweet at first, it then left an acidity at that back of the throat that was not unpleasant. This tej had become my new favorite way to consume honey.

We told Seifu we wanted a typical Ethiopian meal. He nodded and dashed off. In the meantime, other groups had trickled in. One French couple had previously lived in Ethiopia and were there for a culinary reminder of their time spent there. Another couple sat down at the table beside us, obviously familiar with the restaurant. Later, they told us they knew Seifu because of their common language and through seeing each other at church. They come to the Ethiopian Restaurant at least once a week.

But actually, all kinds of people come to eat there, Seifu later told us. Because of its location, the Ethiopian Restaurant attracts many students and professors from Uni Wien looking for a tasty and affordable lunch menu. But whoever comes in, Seifu seems to know them all; stopping at each table and chatting for at least five minutes about life, weather, Ethiopian food…

We watched as dishes were delivered to hungry customers. Most of the food was presented in a mesob – a giant, straw-woven basket with a lid to keep the contents warm. The sight of this alone was mouth-watering.

Our plate arrived after some time adorned with a variety of steaming meat and vegetables on a bed of injera bread. The dish revolved around a centerpiece of Key Wot beef and lamb, spiced with ginger, butter and paprika. The platter was overflowing with Ayib cheese, stewed potatoes and carrots, or Atkilt, and a fresh Ethiopian salad.

The catch: You have to eat it with your hands. I soon found out that this was actually the fun part. The injera is very thin and pliable bread, almost like a crepe. It’s made from a flour that is unique because of the Ethiopian climate. Step 1: Rip off a piece of injera. Step 2: Proceed to grab desired food with said injera. Step 3: Attempt to successfully deposit food into mouth before dropping it. It did prove to be a challenge at times, but luckily Seifu was constantly circulating checking on everyone and making sure they were using the proper technique.

At the end of the meal, we were able to ask Seifu a few questions. First was the name of our dish, priced at €16. He replied with a sly smile,  "Well it’s Menu Number 11, so I guess it’s called ‘Teller für zwei Personen’". Later we learned the actual names of each item, as detailed above.

Seifu also informed us that the Ethiopian Restaurant buys coffee beans from the Kaffa Province in Ethiopia. They roast the beans themselves and give away fresh coffee on Fridays and Saturdays. Customers can also partake in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, should they so desire. The ceremony goes hand-in hand with the give-away – Fridays after 21:00 and all day Saturdays; first come, first serve. Seifu pointed out that there’s usually a line, so if you want to join, get there early!

In any case, our meal was one that was tasty and filling. It wasn’t haute cuisine, but that’s not what it strives to be. The Ethiopian Restaurant makes simple, traditional food, and its authenticity was both striking and refreshing. When we asked Seifu how long this type of food has been around, he laughed:

"People have been eating this way ever since they discovered the banana!"


Ethiopian Restaurant

9., Währinger Straße 15

(01) 402 0726

Reservations recommended

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