Sunday 19 July 2009

Asmara - An Eritrean Adventure

I've been wanting to try Eritrean food for a while. I've never been to Africa, nor sampled the food from the continent so I was quite excited when a friend suggested we meet up and try Asmara, named after the capital city in Eritrea, in Brixton. It had an unassuming front. When we approached, we thought it rather resembled a kebab shop with its neon frontage. Thankfully, it wasn't.

Upon entering the restaurant, we were quite relieved that we hadn't booked. Aside from one couple, the restaurant was empty and deathly quiet. We sat down, and decided to order the special meat feast. We weren't sure what would be best from the menu, and this seemed the best way to try out a range of dishes. Unfortunately our waiter wasn't exactly chatty; I'd have liked to ask more questions about the food, but the language barrier prevented this.

When the food came, the injera was brought out first on a large metal platter for all of us to share. This was to be the vehicle in which you shovel the food into your mouth. There's no cutlery here. The injera was quite sour due to the flour being left to ferment, much like a sourdough, and was more of a pancake with a crumpet-like look to it. Next, our dishes were spooned on top of the injera, and we attacked it like hungry wolves.

There were two minced dishes, a chicken (on the bone) dish, an egg and mince dish and some lamb. The 'mixed vegetable' dish was potato wedges, topped with some cabbage, and finally some spinach. These were well spiced, some spicy and some mild. Textures aside, these were quite difficult to differentiate between. I'd have preferred some proper vegetables, as a meal without any makes me feel uneasy and the potato and injera combination was quite stodgy.

My favourite dish of the night was the lamb chunks. Originally, the menu offered lambs liver and tripe, which we swapped for this as the description of it cooked in a claypot sounded better.

The chunks were tender, juicy and spicy. The injera soaked up all the juices from the meat and became spongy and was very tasty. It's filling stuff though, and after demolishing the plate, we were fit to pop.

Included in this set meal was traditional coffee. It was a bit of a bizarre moment, as the waiter brought out a small saucepan with coffee beans roasting in it, and showed it to a nearby table who had finished their meal a little earlier. The smell of roasting beans filled the (now half full) restaurant.

We were presented with the coffee accompanied by this giant bowl of warm, salted popcorn. Once again, I was unable to ask the waiter of why this is served with the coffee, but we ploughed through it. Popcorn is so moreish. The coffee, said to be like rocket fuel, was rather medicinal tasting and thankfully didn't keep me awake all night.

I enjoyed the meal a lot, although after a while I became a bit bored with the injera; it was a touch too sour for my tastes and it was very filling. The meat was well cooked and decently spiced and the meal was a bargain; £18 a head including service for the meat feast, a beer and a shared bottle of wine between 4.

I'd like to return, and perhaps sample some vegetable dishes for a bit of variation. Dining a little later, say at 8:30pm instead of an hour earlier might be better too, as the atmosphere definitely picked up as the restaurant filled up.


386 Coldharbour Lane,
London SW9 8LF

Tel: 020 7737 4144

Asmara on Urbanspoon


An American in London said...

When I was a grad student living in Washington, DC (where there's a large Ethiopian community), I ate Ethiopian food pretty regularly, which is a cuisine that also uses injera as a staple. And I completely agree with your assessment of "too sour but filling." £18 to feed four explains why, despite my "don't love it" attitude towards injera, I ate at so many Ethiopian restaurants back in the day. The stews (often veg or split-pea-based) were usually so good that they masked the injera's sourness.

Su-Lin said...

There weren't any lentil dishes on there? I've always liked Ethiopian/Eritrean lentils. And doro wat!

Jenny said...

This looks like a very intriguing meal, African cuisine is a mystery to me beyond Moroccan stuff and South African bbqs!

When I was in Nepal there was a lot of popcorn too, they used to put in soup like croutons, I guess as it is cheap and quite filling. Still quite random though!

Thanks for the tip about the shiitakes and the Fuchsia Dunlop book, will have to check it out.

Unknown said...

I wonder if the popcorn is a traditional accompaniment - such a strange thing to have with coffee?

Jessica said...

There's an Eritrean place I like at the top of Greenlanes, near Turnpike Lane. That's the place to go if you want to chat about the food, origins, culture and all that jazz - Muna is the greatest hostess!

Don't you just love eating with your hands though. Awesome.

Helen said...

Yeah I'd like to go back too. I want to try some different stuff. It was all rather samey. I enjoyed those eggs though. Agreed on the veg front. I was a bit annoyed with the injera - they had a lot of holes. It was like they were laughing in my face.

Jessica said...

I forgot to mention that restaurant is called Muna's. Duh.

@Helen - once again annoyed by food.

Unknown said...

Sounds tasty. I love the sour injera, and I wonder if Asmara's is made with traditional "teff" flour. I had lots of Eritrean contact in St Louis, MO, USA during grad school and experienced not only the tasty food, but the (repetitive?) music, the (shoulder shrugging) dancing and, perhaps most interesting, a traditional wedding. I have been to Adulis ( a few times (always left full and happy), but never Asmara.

pigpigscorner said...

WOw this is interesting, never had Eritrean food. popcorn with coffee sounds a bit weird. I only have popcorn at movies =P

noodlecapricciosa said...

There is a rather good ethiopian restaurant unimaginatively called 'addis' just near King's Cross station that also serves its food with injera but topped it with a lot of different types of offal - also does a lunch deal which is cheaper than the 18quid =]

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

Great meal! I've had Ethiopian food at a restaurant in Tufnell Park, the name of which escapes me. It was pretty good too.

Hollow Legs said...

AAIL - Sorry if I didn't make it clear, it was £18 per head, not in total. I've amended the post. I had no idea there was a big Ethiopian community in DC!

Su-Lin - perhaps it did on the veggie feast, but none on the platter we ordered.

Jenny - Interesting point about Nepal, I didn't know they ate a lot of popcorn there.

GC - I can only assume it is... hopefully someone can clarify.

Jessica Rose - I looove eating with my hands! I'll check out the Green Lanes one too.

Helen - They knew about the crumpet-fails and did it on purpose...

Thomas - thanks for more recommendations! We didn't hear a peep of music...

Pig Pig - I know! I usually only have it at movies.

Noodle - thanks for the tip-off!

Helen YLP - I think I know the one, I went past on a bus once and thought "oh, i'd like to try that!"

helen b said...

Glad you liked it, next time you HAVE to have the spicy lentils, maybe with the spicy beef, spinach and spicy (do you detect a theme) chicken.


Ollie said...

I was sad to miss this one - looks like it was a lovely night. Never tasted injera before.

Unknown said...

Hi there. There is a really nice Ethiopia or Eritrean restaurant near the Oval. Every time I've been it's been busy, packed with beautiful people from Ethiopia who all look like Imam which is one of the fun reasons to go. I'd recommend it.

Adulis Ethiopian Restaurant. 44 Brixton Road. Oval, London SW9

winesleuth said...

Thanks for the heads up on the Ethiopian joint. I used to live in Wash.DC and one thing I do miss are those great, cheap and filling Ethiopian restos. You def. have to try the spicy lentils next time. Cheers!

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