Where: The Abyssinian, 277 Racecourse Road Kensington
What: A reminder of why, however tasty, I only eat food from the Horn of Africa once every few years
Bloat score: 5 – So full of gas I floated home like a hot air balloon
There’s something about the experience of eating with your hands that is nostalgic, memorable and intoxicating all at once. Although I am accustomed to eating with my hands at home, using my expertly trained fingers to scoop up perfectly spherical mounds of rice mixed in with curries and pickles, a sense of inhibition overcomes me when dining in Indian restaurants. I surrender to the cold, mechanical surfaces of a fork and spoon, wincing whenever it clanks clumsily against my plate and never fully giving into the experience as I do when I’m able to lick my fingers after a meal.
Which is why The Abyssinian is so great – you have no choice but to use its homemade injera bread as a makeshift plate that you heap delicious curries on to, inadvertently staining your fingers with the aromatic spices. Injera bread is a spongy staple in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine and is made from teff flour, a khaki-coloured grain. It is gluten-free if it is made with 100% teff flour, but most places combine teff flour with wheat flour to counter its inherent sourness, which I suspect The Abyssinian does as well if my bloat score is anything to go by.
Unsure if The Abyssinian was BYO or not, we brought a few bottles of wine (just in case) and happily found that it was! It is $8 corkage per bottle, although there is a healthy range of African beers to choose from as well.
I tried not to read the menu in too much detail and conveniently skipped over details like ‘finely fresh chopped garlic’ and ‘sautéed onion puree’ because I was in denial. The six of us eventually ordered one vegetarian platter and two mixed platters. One platter is typically shared between two people, but keep in mind they are massive and probably shouldn’t be preceded with a bag of chips (in my defence, our dinner booking was only for 7.30 and I was hungry).
Our mixed platter was evenly split, with four meat dishes and four vegetarian dishes sitting atop the injera bread. My personal favourites were the Nile perch fillet cubed and sautéed with onion (agh), spiced ghee and the Ethiopian spice mix Berbere, which imbued many of the dishes with a distinctive taste unparalleled in other spice-heavy cuisines, and the heavenly fragrant finely ground spiced chickpeas cooked and simmered in olive oil and chopped garlic (eek).
The other dishes were small cubes of marinated lamb; goat cooked in lemon, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon; sautéed strips of chicken breast in a light turmeric creamy sauce; soft chunks of pumpkin in a sweet and spicy Berbere sauce; and two different types of lentils. Some of my friends found the goat a bit strong in flavour, and while it is a type of meat that I’m unaccustomed to eating on a weekly basis, my mum prepared me well with her occasional goat curries.
The meat and vegetables complemented each other beautifully, with the vegetarian dishes every bit as outstanding as the meat ones. The shared experience of using our hands to dig into a communal plate was both comforting and intimate. Coupled with the cosy and excitable atmosphere of the restaurant, The Abyssinian felt like the perfect place for a Friday night girls-only catch-up.
The vegetarian platter had the same vegetarian dishes as the mixed platter, plus a cabbage and carrot dish sautéed in garlic and spices as well as a mix of on-season vegetables cooked in oil, caramelised onions and garlic.
I only belatedly realised (today, in fact, after a more in-depth perusal of the menu) that there’s a rice option for us gluten-intolerant people, but there’s nothing quite like eating injera bread that has been soaked in the spices and flavours of the curries sitting atop it. There’s also nothing quite like the bloat I experienced after, though, so you win some and you lose some.
Thankfully my partner was at home and waiting with a hot water bottle, upon an urgent text message from me. As I sat in bed relishing the heat of the hot water bottle against my tummy, I wondered, not for the last time, whether it was all worth it. And I can definitively say that The Abyssinian was worth the bloat – every single one. Farewell, my friend – we’ll meet again in five years.
The Abyssinian is open from 5.30pm to 10pm Monday to Saturday.