Giles Coren famously wrote that he’d walk to Manchester barefoot in the rain for one more mouthful of Simon Rogan’s chopped raw rib-eye in coal oil at The French. That was amazingly a decade ago and, to put it kindly, his return visits to the city have been sporadic since. The Times critic’s most recent foray saw him perversely spurning any number of impressive new wave restaurants to seek out a niche old stager, the Ethiopian cafe called Habesha on the fringe of the Gay Village. The reason? His passion for a bread that had passed me by.
No longer. I’ve been on my own Injera quest, sparked by the arrival of House of Habesha as a pop-up at the same city’s Contact Bar & Kitchen. It offers a suitably dramatic cuisine for a theatre setting. Lovely approachable food. Habesha, by the way, is a term that Ethiopians and Eritreans use to refer to themselves, specifically related to predominantly Orthodox Christian peoples found in the Highlands. From it sprang the old European name for the country – Abyssinia.
The two Manchester culinary rivals sharing the name are not related. But their bread providers engage in the daily, labour-intensive creation of Injera – the foundation of most meals in Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea. Think of it as a springy sourdough flatbread, defined by its legion of tiny surface bubbles. It offers a perfect spongy texture for absorbing flavours as you scoop up a meat or veg accompaniment with your hands, as tradition demands.
The key grain is the ubiquitous drought-resistant teff. Protein and mineral rich, while fundamentally gluten-free, it was one of the earliest grasses domesticated. The injeras it produces come in light and (richer) dark versions. House of Habesha’s ‘Full House’ platter drapes the bread as a base, the assorted constituent dishes interspersed with further, rolled breads.
Samson will delight you with his mighty mesobs
On our visit HoH founder Samson Yitbareck presents this sharing plate with a cloche-like flourish from under a colourful, cone-shaped palm straw ‘mesob’, which means bread basket. The injera has fermented for a week, some rice flour/self-raising to hurry it along. Manchester temperatures aren’t the same as Eritrea’s.
Samson grew up in Manchester and does not feel entirely governed by tradition. The Contact pop-up makes compromises, offering a series of loaded fries and tortilla wraps under the label ‘Habesha Twist’, but always using herbs and spices redolent of the homeland. The country’ s proprietary spice blend, berbere, consists of red chillies, fenugreek, and ginger, with the addition of warm spices such as coriander, cardamom, allspice, cumin, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, and some lesser-known indigenous spices such as korarima, ajwain, and long pepper. House of Habesha’s slow-cooked sliced lamb dish called kulwa keyh made a fine showcase or the berbere. Milder is the spice treatment for hekla, grilled lamb chops on the bone. Vegan dishes get equal billing here and the majority of dishes are gluten-free, too.
Certainly the offering was the equal of (and cheaper than) a long-established Ethiopian restaurant I visited recently in Tufnell Park, London. I must admit it was the name that drove me to Lalibela, an artefact cluttered homage to the old country. More specifically to the mountainous region of that name that is famous for its cluster of medieval churches hewn out of rock faces. It’s also home to an oat flour based cousin of injera called Aja Kita that is literally whistled up by the natives, according to Yohanis Gebreyesus’ definitive Ethiopia: Recipes and traditions from the Horn of Africa (Octopus, £30).
The whistlers of ancient Lalibela and their bubbling batter
Globetrotting chef Gebreyesus recounts: “When we bake injera, there are shattered bubbles (ayen in the Amharic language) on top of the bread, which give it a very spongy texture, and the more the better. That’s how we value it, aesthetically and in terms of taste as well. To make aja kita (thin oat flatbreads) with similar features, cooks in the countryside of Lalibela huddle around the hot griddle, pucker their lips and whistle, directing their shrill breath towards the bubbling batter.”
There is a quasi-scientific explanation. Oats contain a protein called avenin, which (like gluten) creates elasticity in dough; stretching and entrapping gas bubbles as they form. The vibration emitted by whistling is thought to help to burst these bubbles and create plentiful ‘eyes’ on the surface of the bread.
Visiting Lalibela, the restaurant, did allow me to order a kitfo, a kind of steak tartare, dressed with more of that berbere and fresh cream cheese… plus a side of gomen greens. Wot (stews) and tibs (hybrid stir-fries and stews) of meat and chicken are the mainstay of the menu with chickpeas and fava beans as veggie alternatives.
This London place has a strong family feel to it and the same applies to House of Habesha, which was nominated for ‘Best Food Trader’ in the 2002 Manchester Food and Drinks Festival. A young Samson fled war-time Eritrea with his father in 2013 and grew up in Manchester, studying at both universities and becoming a web developer. Food was always a passion. Hence House of Habesha, which has had successful pop-ups at the Northern Quarter’s Mala and The Eagle Inn, Salford. This October for two weeks and again before Christmas it will be returning to Stretford Food Hall alongside the Contact gig, which currently runs until January.
Good to know then that there is family support on hand. The Red Cross located Samson’s mother and sister in Stoke on Trent and his brother in Germany to reunite a family scattered by conflict. A happy ending for this particular House of Habesha.
House of Habesha, at the GRUB-run Contact Bar & Kitchen. Open 10am-late, Monday to Saturday. Contact Theatre, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6JA.
Lalibela, 137 Fortess Rd, London NW5 2HR.