{10/11/2012}   Addis Ababa: food and drink

I am writing this with what is hopefully the tail end of the most virulent case of diarrhea I have ever had, so it’s safe to assume there were some issues, though I’m going to attempt not to let this affect my comments on the food and drink we had.  Overall, for the mere four full days we were there, I’d say we had a mix of hotel/international and restaurant/Ethiopian food.  My friend and I both got this dreadful stomach “thing” (yet to have it confirmed what it was/is) and don’t know where it came from, ie there was nothing obvious we ate or drank so it could just have been from imbibing a bit of shower water or perhaps from drinking hotel fruit juice that was slightly watered down to pour through the smoothie taps.  Hmm, where to start …

We landed before 7am on Sunday and by 9.30am we were walking to Yeshi Bunna, a small cafe chain recommended by an Ethiopian friend of a friend.  Now, here I feel it important to say that when you look at a map of Addis (indeed, I had photocopied the maps from the Bradt guide I had left at home and were what we used to walk the c20 minutes to Yeshi Bunna) and see “cafe” or “pastry shop”, neither the map nor the cafe reflect the reality.  I don’t have a photo of the cafe but there is no way I would have ventured inside had I just been wandering around as it just looked like a glorified shack from the outside and having had pretty much no sleep the night before, it being hot and a mad assault on the senses, I was not remotely alert enough to make rational decisions.  Likewise, having a map that makes roads look like roads and businesses look like “normal” buildings is deceiving.  I know, I know, wake up, it’s Ethiopia not France, it’s a whole different world, but that’s all part of culture shock, isn’t it?  And we were exhausted and quietly overwhelmed.

Yeshi Bunna, as it happens, was lovely and there was absolutely nothing touristy about it (largely because this is not a touristy city in the slightest, I mean even using the word “touristy” is weird because it’s not a concept we observed, it’s a poor, chaotic, dusty, working city).  We went inside and it stretched back a long way.  We sat in these fantastic Ethiopian low level stools that are topped with a chunk of wood like an inverted button so your bum sits nicely in them and they are so much more comfy than flat topped stools.  All we knew was we wanted some coffee and something to eat.  The menu was massive, maybe eight pages.  I don’t know how but I didn’t get what I ordered.  I thought I’d ordered the dish on the bottom right of this menu, which isn’t clear on the photo as the cafe was so dark (it really isn’t a cafe as you’d imagine it).  I thought I was getting “Chechebsa: Pieces of thin bread mixed with oil and red pepper served with honey on side”.  I ordered the one that also came with egg on top.  We then ordered the coffee that was being prepared by women sitting across from us.  The coffee is Ethiopian clay pot coffee, which I think has recently been roasted, is ground then made into coffee, then poured from a big pot into a smaller clay pot which is then heated on charcoal before being poured into small handle-less cups, served thick and black.  The smell of charcoal and coffee is extremely comforting.  The coffee we had there that morning was one of the most needed and eyes-closed-bliss coffees I have ever had.  As the home of coffee, Ethiopia did herself proud!  It was just perfect.  So we had another one.

As for the breakfast, portion sizes are staggeringly huge.  I had read that, in fact we had discussed that before ordering, yet still we ordered a dish each.  With shame, I didn’t even manage to eat a sixth of it.  It ended up being kind of fried shredded injera (foam bread, Ethiopian staple – forgive me – absolutely revolting) with strips of egg (a kind of egg pancake) and two jugs, one with lovely sweet honey and the other with  – forgive me – absolutely foul watery, white, lumpy, sour cream/cheese/curd *shudder*.  The egg was good and the fried injera (I think that’s what it was, it’s not what the menu says for the dish I thought I ordered, but neither did it come with red pepper and there was a lot of re-checking of what we’d ordered) was ok to a point as I could just about imagine it to be shredded pancake.  But not long into it, I could eat no more.  My friend and I left so much food, and we both somehow got the same dish, though hers was without the egg.

Food portions are massive.  I don’t understand.  Maybe one dish is designed for about four people.  I am not kidding.  If you are reading this and planning to go to Addis Ababa and you are more than one person, order one dish and share it, you can always order another.

As for the menu, yes, it was a minefield.  I am glad we went there and I am glad we tried something different.  Oh the coffee …

As for other food, we stayed at the Radisson Blu and had buffet breakfasts and work provided buffet lunches.  They were exceptionally good.  Addis Ababa has a good reputation for its pastries and the breakfast pastries were lovely.  There were always fruit juices (mainly a colourful mixed juice – all more smoothie than juice in terms of consistency – avocado (more on that later), papaya, orange, occasionally mango and apple) and a selection of cooked food, a lot of which was Ethiopian in style but not what I could eat for breakfast (eg fried onions, meat, etc).  The lunch buffets there were perfect (yes, yes, you shouldn’t eat buffet when in developing countries!).  We had salady things: bean salad, couscous, baba ganoush, hummus, etc.  Everything, particular the tomatoes, tasted really fresh and delicious.  There were also a lot of lovely kinds of bread.  Very good.

We ate out every night: an Italian restaurant catering for Ethiopians, an Italian restaurant catering for Foreigners, Castelli (incidentally, arguably, considered one of the best Italian restaurants … in the world – I read that in a 2005 Daily Telegraph article.  We didn’t know anything about it before going in, other than that my friend recognised the name of it when we walked past it the previous day as being somewhere mentioned on one of our maps as an Italian restaurant), two cafes catering for Ethiopians and a restaurant suggested in a guide book, Habesha on Bole Road.

I am in danger of going on forever so a potted summary:

Pizza and pasta restaurant, catering for Ethiopians, c200m along and across the road from the Radisson Blu: we shared a pizza (we “got” the one-dish-is-too-big-for-one thing).  It was cooked in a proper wood stove, a bit thick for my personal preference but good quality and we ate it all.  It cost less than £3.  I had my first avocado juice with lime.  I probably wouldn’t have ordered it had I not read that it amazing.  I will write a separate paragraph about it.

Avocado juice with lime: without doubt one of the most amazing drinks ever.  In the hotel it was slightly watered down so not as creamy and delicious.  In the juice bar and pizza restaurant it was thick, spoonable and tasted better than you can imagine.  Sublime.  There are no other words.  If you ever get the chance, try it.  I can’t imagine it would work here because it is so rare to find avocados that are ripe and full of flavour.  But with a generous addition of lime juice it is drink perfection.  Ignore the calories in avocado!

Castelli’s, Mahatma Gandhi Street, Piazza area: A joy.  Apparently it’s where visiting celebrities go (Brad Pitt, Sir Bob Geldof, some US Presidents).  The joy of the place is that it’s not remotely pretentious, it’s at the top of  a hill that to climb up (as we did twice) is quite challenging and where my friend in particular discovered she had a bit of altitude sickness.  It’s also in a frenetic part of the city: markets; dust; lots of people; cars; noise.  It was closed when we got there, though a policeman standing nearby told us it opened at 7 and that it was 6.50 at the time.  At around 7.20 we returned (having had a juice (c65p) at a very busy, popular Ethiopian cafe/juice bar round the corner – avocado for me again!).  We were greeted by a large Italian gentleman on one side and a wealth of antipasti on display on the other side.  We were asked if we had a reservation.  I had a mini panic thinking we wouldn’t get in.  All was ok, we did get a table, but I did notice it was very busy.  Seemingly all foreigners, smartly dressed ones rather than touristy ones.  I reiterate, it’s not a touristy place.  It was exquisite.  I had a tagliatelle carbonara, which I chose as it was one of the asterisked dishes indicating home made pasta.  I also had an Ethiopian beer, Meta, which was lovely.  Our waiter was a charming elderly Ethiopian man.  We ate in what was essentially a dining room (I believe there are five such rooms) with wood panelled floors and ceiling and white walls.  It was simple and comfortable.  Our waiter brought us two helpings of delicious crispy-on-the-outside-soft-in-the-middle bread and told us our pasta would be a while longer as the pasta was still being made.  I believe him.  It was perfect tagliatelle and cooked just how I like it.  The sauce was also amazing and the ham was … oh, seriously, it was good.  My friend concluded likewise and we cleaned our plates.  Was it expensive?  Well, each pasta dish (the non-home made pasta dishes were a bit cheaper), which was generous in size, was about £4.50.  My beer was the same price as my friend’s sparkling water, c70p.  Even the wine was a bit cheaper than you’d pay in the UK, though a lot cheaper if you consider how much such a good quality restaurant in the UK would charge for wine to balance the food and wine costs.  So all in all, well worth the visit.  The people next to us had a huge portion of grilled prawns and the smell was wonderful!

Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant: Yikes.  It is a lovely environment, down a dark pathway with little fairy lights over the top.  It’s very atmospheric, dark and higgledy piggledy.  Just what I wanted to try.  The seats are low, as are the tables, which I struggle with, but it is a lovely environment.  My photo does not do it justice because of the flash (and couldn’t see much without flash).  Some things on the menu sounded nice and some of them were on a mixed dish menu so we decided to go for that.  We had a discussion about whether it would be too much food but as it was only roughly double the price of a single dish (this mix had seven dishes), we decided to try as much as possible so ordered the mixed dish, which is what we’d both imagined we’d be eating in Ethiopia.  So I am glad we ordered and tried it.  Now, if you read Trip Advisor, you will see it gets an average of 4.5 out of 5 and many people say it was a highlight of Addis Ababa.  I struggle with that because – forgive me – I didn’t like any of the food.  At all.  Sorry.  I tried everything and kept eating for as long as I could.  We disgraced ourselves by eating so little and I really am ashamed, though I am confident that food was not thrown out.  There were some nice flavours to be found.  But there is no mistaking the fact that, this being my third attempt at eating an Ethiopian meal (first time for my 21st in San Francisco, second time in Greenwich Market, London), I do not like it.  I do not say this lightly and I am not proud of myself but I just can’t eat it.  It repeated on me all night, I couldn’t get rid of the taste (I had brought the delightfully minty Colpermin tablets and one of them helped get rid of the taste) and I had a burning feeling quite high up my chest, which I suppose was indigestion.  I can eat injera (moist foam, served as cardboard grey and grey brown, the latter being slightly more offensive) in the sense that I couldn’t eat, say, fermented mare’s milk or horse testicles (Mongolia – not that I’ve been), but I dislike it enormously and I have just realised that since writing this section I have been grimacing.  A lot.  I wanted so much to enjoy this meal.  Neither of us did.  The meat (sorry, F, I know you wanted the veggie version, though I suspect that wouldn’t have been without challenges either!) didn’t taste nice and the texture wasn’t pleasant, though some chicken was ok, and … I won’t flog this one.  I didn’t enjoy it in the slightest.  We also wonder whether the water and watery soap hand-cleaning ceremony that preceded this was what gave us our gippy tums.  We’ll never know.  As for the restaurant, we were too early for the main entertainment but we did hear a bit of the keyboard player and singer.  She was very good but it is not the kind of music – forgive me again – that I find easy to listen to.  Ouch, I sound really rude, but I’m afraid it’s true.  I am probably glad we weren’t there for the full show and dancing.  They did have coffee ceremony there but I know you have to have at least three coffees and it was the evening so neither of us were up for that!  It is a fascinating place and an experience, but, please, if you go with someone else, order one dish and share it.  Do not dismiss that advice.

On a final note, we went to a branch of La Parisienne, a pastry cafe billed as one of the best in Addis Ababa.  I reiterate what I said before about my image of a cafe and that in a very poor country being very different.  It was fine but, as with Yeshi Bunna, not somewhere I’d have otherwise stopped.  The one we went to served a decent cappuccino and the chocolate croissant was different to any other I’d eaten but was well made, warm and delicious.  But don’t expect pristine tables and anything remotely fancy or modern.  I know this makes me sound like a middle class snob and I did enjoy it but it takes longer than a few days to adjust to a city so staggeringly different and so staggeringly poor and I wasn’t there long enough to get my head around that.  I had no issue being there or eating there, I just felt very guilty for having a slight feeling of disappointment that a pastry shop and cafe billed as one of the best in Addis Ababa (a place with a reputation for excellent pastries) was at the bottom of a block of flats (I think), along a dusty, busy, chaotic road and the few pastries were displayed in a dirty, old display case and where the toilet was revolting (probably the worst toilet I’d used, though not because of anything horrible in the toilet bowl, just old, smelly, wet floor and precariously hung door and in my defence that was a few hours into my upset stomach, though shortly prior to it being truly awful).  I know, I know, I was in Ethiopia, I had no reason to expect a pristine cafe.  Anyway, our two cappuccinos and two pastries only came to less than £3.

We also went to Tomoca, a coffee shop chain, of which there was a branch in our hotel.  I tried a sprice (I think that’s right), which is a mix of black tea and black coffee!  I actually kind of enjoyed it, being a huge lover of both, but I wouldn’t want to try to recreate it.  I know it sounds weird to emphasise the obvious but at one moment it tasted of rich black tea, and another of strong, black coffee!  Surprising and interesting.  I would have liked to have visited a proper branch of Tomoca as I believe the coffee is roasted outside some of them.  The hotel one was a soulless cafe, unlike La Parisienne (!), that could have been part of any hotel anywhere in the world.

I will be amazed if anyone has read as far as the end of this, I got a bit carried away.  It was, to use a cliche, a real food and drink roller coaster, with extremes of loving and hating things.  I think I appreciate more now that we went into “local” places, such as Yeshi Bunna and Hebesha, and I am truly surprised to find myself feeling a bit nostalgic and “next time, I’ll go to …”  I guess the love/hate thing is kind of unusual for me.  When I first starting writing this, lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and my slowly recovering delicate stomach, I was thinking that I will never go to Addis Ababa again and, thinking of the food and drink only, never would.  Now, very, VERY unexpectedly, I am finding myself thinking that I would go again (though it is is unlikely and if I went again not for work it would be to go somewhere outside Addis Ababa) and I would like to drink more coffee at Yeshi Bunna and other places where the coffee smell mingles with the delightful smell of charcoal, go to Castelli’s again, drink more avocado juice … I guess I would just, sadly, avoid the traditional Ethiopian food.  Oh, and there really is nothing quite like a chilled bottle of Coca-Cola!


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