Ethiopian food has come a long way since Billy Crystal’s problematic joke about a bad date in When Harry Met Sally: “I didn’t know that they had food in Ethiopia?” he says. “This will be a quick meal. I’ll order two empty plates and we can leave.” Truly it’s staggering to think it took Sally so long to see the light.
I was reminded of this punchline when I was confronted with an actually enormous plate of Ethiopian food, so big they serve it on a tray, at an Ethiopian restaurant called Wolkite in Holloway, north London.
Injera is the latest world dish to fall foul of the hip young things. Its appropriation is still in its early stages, although the first time I come here, the crowd was almost all white, too poor to smoke “straight” cigarettes yet rich enough to own £600 bikes. But that is because it’s Friday night and, as Isaac the owner tells me, only white people come on a Wednesday and Friday because these are fast days in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which means they can’t eat meat. “And what’s the point of eating out if you can only eat vegetables?” Well quite.
Injera is a sort of spongy flatbread made from teff flour. Here, it is about the size of as those £600 bike wheels, and is made in a batch in the morning, before being served cold. The injera is then topped with little mountains of dried meat (usually lamb or beef), or sides such as okra, ground chickpeas or spiced yemisir wat lentils. I recommend one meat, and two veg.
You eat injera much in the same way a hungry hippo attacks plastic balls, making little scoops with your hand, working outside in, at pace. Each injera comes with extra injera, rolled up like carpets, to be used if you eat all of the main injera, which forms the base of this dish, both literally and metaphorically. Isaac imports the teff flour used to make it because you can’t grow it in the UK. The dough is fermented, so occasionally they add gluten to sweeten it – mostly as a sop to our pathetic western tastebuds. In the States, they’ve corrupted injera further, serving it with scrambled eggs for brunch.
Teff has lots going for it. It is effectively sourdough, and gluten-free, appealing to the coeliac and the Goop-y alike. It is also delicious and, if you are willing to ignore your own contribution to the commodification of ethnic cuisine (hi!), then I recommend it. Isaac, who has run this restaurant for six years, doesn’t care: the night before, there was a 30-minute queue for a table.