Abyssinian: Taste of Ethiopia in Chennai

After trying my hand at most Japanese restaurants, I was wondering if I should try something else like say Ethiopian. That was the conclusion I came to after an impromptu lunch date with a foodie friend of mine. I was really glad we decided to try Ethiopian that day.

So one pleasant afternoon we met at the Abyssinian in Chennai.

It was a small and cosy place with minimal chairs, lot of accessories on walls and just enough lighting. There were only four tables. It was not even a regular table but a round one where people have to huddle to finish their food. But I liked it. Walls were decorated with wooden wall-hangings in the shape primitive cooking stoves and other cooking vessels. There were some paintings of African women dressed in native costumes.

Interiors of Abyssinian, Chennai.
Seating area in Abyssinian

To be honest, it was the funniest lunch date ever. For we did not know what to do with the menu the sweet guy, who was waiting on our table, gave us. We knew what the vegetarian dishes were since they were highlighted in green. But other than that we did not know how to order or what to order. I thought at least in Japanese cuisine, I could make out at least vaguely what was what.

So we called our waiter and asked him to recommend and finally ordered honey wine and spicy Ethiopian mock tail for drinks; Azifa, brown lentils mashed in Ethiopian vinaigrette; and Inguday Tibs, which is Ethiopian stir fried vegetables served with injera. Then we just sat there having no idea of what to expect, while talking about perils of being a journalist.

When we were served the dishes, we were taken quite aback. Drinks were not like what we expected it to be. The Ethiopian mocktail was spicy but in a nice way. The one I had ordered, Honey wine, though not alcoholic it pretty much tasted like one. We were then served starter Azifa, which tasted like sundal we eat during navaratri. Considering it is made from lentils made with minced onions and green peppers, I think sundal comes pretty close. It was finally the time for the main dish – Tibs and Injera, which was nothing but a ragi dosa with fried vegetables.

Honey wine and Ethiopian mocktail
Starter Azifa, made from brown lentils, minced onion and green peppers mashed in Ethiopian vinaigrette.
Injera, sourdough flatbread made from ragi.
Injera served with Tibs, stir fried mushrooms, onions, green peppers, tomato and rosemary
That was my pretty lunch date tasting the main course.

Let me explain what tibs and injera are since most of us will not have much idea about what Ethiopian cuisine is about. The cuisine typically consists of injera, which is a sourdough flatbread made from rice or millet, on top of which vegetable or meat stew is served. If I have to put it simply, it is like a huge masala dosa, which is served with stir-fried or thick stew made from vegetables, meat primarily beef, lamb and lentils and legumes are served. These sidedishes are called Tibs and Wat, depending on the preparation. That is if the meat or vegetables is served stir-fried it is called Tibs and the thick stew is called Wat.

I’m not really sure if this was how typical Ethiopian cuisine is supposed to taste like. It was not exaggerated. The taste was simple, familiar and I kind of liked it. To finish it off, we ordered Ethiopian coffee that is supposed to be pretty good. Coffee was served in small white porcelain cup. But instead of just sugar, accompaniments for coffee included salt and spicy butter.

Ethiopian coffee with salt and spicy butter

Apparently, Ethiopians prefer coffee with salt and spicy butter. While my friend did not want to experiment, I was willing. So my coffee was mixed with salt and spicy butter. I was only glad that the quantity was small and not a big tumbler like I usually drink when I was done.

In short, Abyssinian was good and may be not exceptional, except for the drinks. But that does not mean they were not good. The dishes we ordered were probably the ones that we were so used. Come on, Tamils are so used to eating dosa and masala. So for me the concept was the same. But I would like to go there again and enjoy the familiar taste of what I think is an Ethiopian dosa. 

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