Food | The Gannet

Mamma mia, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa offers up colourful local cuisine and a tasty colonial curiosity.

June 16 2010
Bill Knott

As a gastronomic destination, Addis Ababa may not seem an obvious choice. The capital of a country that has long been associated with famine and drought, its restaurant scene might be expected to be rudimentary at best.

Far from it. It is a city with a great sense of joie de vivre, reflected not just in a lively artistic and musical scene but also in its culinary heritage, including excellent local food, and some surprising colonial baggage.

The Italians marched into Ethiopia in 1935 and left six years later; a few Italians stayed behind, however, including soldier Francesco Castelli. In 1948, he opened Ristorante Castelli in Addis Ababa, and it is still there today, using the original pasta machine somehow acquired from Italy.

Given that many of the ingredients are imported, prices are remarkably low for top-notch, slightly old-fashioned Italian cuisine. The restaurant comprises four dining rooms and a semi-open kitchen, and it is rather formal, staffed by Ethiopian waiters unhurriedly delivering plates of ravioli and risotto to the tables of Addis’s elite, and – just possibly – Sir Bob Geldof, who describes Castelli’s as his favourite Italian restaurant. Dress up, and prepare for a culture shock.

Several Addis restaurants offer the full Ethiopian experience – exuberant dancing, music and the elaborate, incense-scented coffee ceremony – without being touristy. My favourite is Fasika (“Easter” in Amharic), where the bonhomie is thoroughly infectious. You will be served a big plate covered in what looks like a clammy bath mat: this is injera, the Ethiopian staple bread made from a grain called teff. It is cold, slightly sour and thoroughly delicious. Spicy concoctions are spooned on top – stews, sautéed meat and vegetables, and kitfo, a piquant kind of steak tartare – and you might drink tej, a honey wine, or local beer St George.

As was made clear to me by many locals, Ethiopia needs and welcomes tourism: visiting this beautiful country, from the astonishing rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in the north to the lakes and rolling hills in the south, stimulates the local economy and provides some unforgettable experiences. I was there to visit the programmes of Action Against Hunger, funded in part by the efforts of UK restaurants over the past decade, but I shall definitely return under my own steam.

Action Against Hunger’s supporters will themselves be well fed on October 9, when the annual fundraising Fine Wine Auction and Dinner takes place in London. Guest chefs include Mark Hix (pictured) and the legendary Pierre Koffmann, and all money raised will benefit AAH’s projects worldwide, especially their fight against child malnutrition.