Forget trendy ‘sharing plates’; if you really want to get involved around the table then an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant is the way to go. The food is served on a giant flat bread called injera, which everyone tears into and uses to scoop up mouthfuls of the various dishes on top. You might also want to try a little 'gursha', a practice that involves scooping a bite sized amount of food and feeding it to the person sitting next to you.
Injera is made from teff, an important grain in the diet of these East African countries, which is fermented into a sort of batter, and then cooked on a large hot plate. The resulting injera looks a bit like a very large, flat crumpet, the surface mottled with bubbles and the flavour very distinctive, with a sour tang. All other dishes, including various wats (like spicy stews or curries), tibs (sauteed meats), and dishes of lentils, greens and ayibe (a kind of dry-ish cottage cheese) among others, are served on top of it. Two of the flavour foundations of the cuisines are a spice mix called berbere, made from dried chillies, fenugreek, nigella seeds, false cardamom and various other herbs and spices, and niter kibbeh, a clarified butter infused with spices including fenugreek, cardamom and nutmeg.
There’s also the famous coffee to try of course, and the beans may be roasted and ground in a ritual before being brewed, thick and powerful. They grow and roast some of the best coffee in the world.
We’ve tried many of London’s Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants over the years. These are our current favourites.
Tafe Belayneh’s restaurant sits tucked away in the corner of a housing estate on the Walworth Road, serving classic Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes, but she didn’t always serve traditional food. After arriving in London in 1993, she set up the business mainly as an English café as apparently the locals were resistant to trying new dishes with unfamiliar flavours, and would keep asking for sausage sandwiches. She persisted and started serving a little of her native food to the regulars at lunch times. Eventually they caved, giving in to her delicious ways, so she scrapped the greasy spoon staples.
Many of the customers at Zeret Kitchen are vegetarian or vegan according to Tafe, and one of her most popular dishes is a chickpea stew, called shiro wat. There is little meat on the menu, although she does serve lamb and beef (no pork as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not permit it). Her own favourite dish however is misir wat, a dish of lentils spiced with berbere. We recommend getting the Zeret Surprise, which is a little bit of many dishes on an injera — perfect for first timers. We love to get kitfo too, if it's on the menu — a dish of chopped raw beef.
She sells injera to take away, which is a major bonus since it’s very hard to make at home. No-one in the UK, we’ve been told, makes it with 100% teff as is traditional, as differences in the atmosphere and flour here mean that it won’t ferment properly. She makes huge batches using partly teff, storing them under vast wicker baskets (called mosob).
We love Zeret Kitchen and Tafe's hospitality. It's one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in London, hands down.
Zeret Kitchen, 216-218 Camberwell Road, SE5 0ED
Zigni House is now closed.
Zigni house was one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in London that really impressed us. It's very welcoming inside, with lots of wicker baskets, candles, hand carved wooden furniture and bright, colourful fabric hangings on the walls.
The injera is particularly good, nice and sour, just as it is in Ethiopia. Their standout dish for us however is the Zil Zil — strips of almost biltong-like meat, which bring a welcome texture break from saucy stews. We also love the Ajbo Hamli (chopped spinach, cheese and butter and Timtomo Rolls, which is injera filled with richly spiced lentils). Kategna is more injera, this time fried, dusted with chilli and slicked with ghee. So yes, injera pops up in many forms, and in Ethiopia you will find the leftovers from the previous day repurposed as breakfast. If you don’t like injera, then you’ve got a problem, basically. You’ll probably need to order extra at some point during the meal at Zigni too, so generous are the portions of stews and other dishes.
It seems like a slightly odd location for this kind of restaurant, Islington, which we tend to associate more with posh chicken, or mummy populated cafes, but here it is and here it thrives.
Zigni House, 330 Essex Road, N1 3PB
Lemlem Kitchen is a stall at Netil market with a modern take on Eritrean cuisine. Looking for a way to serve individual portions of injera, Eritrean owner Makda decided to cut circles of injera and serve them in taco sized portions. It’s a great way to have a taste without going for the whole shebang.
What keeps us going back to Lemlem however, is the chicken wings, which are some of the best in London. The spicing is exceptional and these wings are smothered in a thick paste which is addictive, flavoured heavily with berbere. We wish we’d thought of the idea ourselves, and in fact we’ll be nicking it for our next BBQ. Read our full review of Lemlem Kitchen here.
Lemlem Kitchen, Netil Market, 13-23 Westgate Street, E8 3RL