A taste of Eritrea in Brixton…

Mister North was London-bound again this week and I decided to introduce him to one of my favourite neighbourhood restaurants, Asmara on Coldharbour Lane. This is an Eritrean restaurant serving delicious food at extremely good prices. It’s also within walking distance of my house making it perfect for a casual Tuesday evening dinner.

This small restaurant is just opposite the Dogstar and looks remarkably like a kebab shop from the frontage, but once you step inside it is a traditional restaurant filled with low tables, cane furniture and mouth-watering aromas. There were only two other tables filled when we were there, but on Friday or Saturday, the place is extremely busy from early evening and you may have to queue for a table.

We took a seat and the waiter brought the menu. It had a good selection of both meat-based and vegetarian dishes. Most of them centre round injera, which is a soft spongy pancake that looks like a giant pikelet and is full of small holes to soak up the juices of the food which is placed on top of it. Injera is both the carbs and the cutlery at the meal as you scoop up the food with it and eat it all. It has a slightly sour flavour and while some people find it an acquired taste, I love it.

There were also dishes involving diced injera or rice, but we decided to share a platter of traditional injera and both ended up choosing a meat dish. Mister North went for Special Zelzil Tbissi which is thinly cut lamb roasted in spiced butter and served in a special pot with smoking charcoal underneath. I tried to be adventurous, but ended up going for my favourite thing on the menu in the shape of Kitfo with ajibo and spinach. This is finely minced spiced beef, with a cheese similar to paneer, and chopped spinach. I love it so much I crave this dish often in between visits to Asmara. We decided to wash this down with a bottle of  Castel beer from Ethiopia.

The waiter came to take our order and a casual Tuesday dinner became the most surreal dining experience I’ve had in London. Deciding it was a quiet night, the waiter seemed to have popped out for a quick smoke at some point, with the result that he was even more baked than the injera. It was like being served by Snoop Dogg. Luckily everything on the menu was appetising enough that we would have been happy to eat anything, since we weren’t sure the waiter had grasped what exactly we had ordered. We did get our beer without incident, so we sipped that and kept our fingers crossed…

The food arrived quite quickly, but it became apparent that the Special Zelzil Tibssi was going to be a hand-eye coordination challenge for our waiter. It came in a dish that looked a bit like an oil burner and the lamb was sizzling in butter on top. It was then spooned out onto the injera, causing a fit of uncontrollable giggles from the waiter and some suppressed sniggers from us. The meat made it to the plate with only one piece going rogue. It was flavoursome and tender and shot through with sweet onions and green chilli, leaving a slight tingle on the tongue.

The Kitfo was much easier to serve, just being tipped out onto the platter. The meat is finely minced and very dense in texture, rich with spiced butter and oozed the most gorgeous juices onto the injera. The spinach is chopped roughly with soft nuggets of ajibo scattered through out and the slightly sweet, earthy flavours are perfect with the spiced beef. We tore off pieces of injera and scooped it all up with enthusiasm. I love this communal sociable form of eating. It’s deliciously decadent to eat with your hands in a restaurant when you’re not used to it.

The Castel beer was quite malty and hoppy and the tang of it complemented the spices and fermented taste of the injera perfectly. The injera soaks up all the goodness from the dishes so not even a drop is wasted. The portions of meat look quite small when served, but the spongy injera is surprisingly filling, especially there are 3 to the platter. We were most definitely replete when the plate was empty. The restaurant had emptied while we were eating and the waiter seemed to have fallen asleep some time earlier as we finished up our second beer. We thought it was best not to request coffee on this occasion!

Eritrea and Ethiopia are famous for their coffee which is roasted at the table over a flame and then served strong and hot with a dish of salted popcorn to accompany it. Our waiter had managed admirably so far, but we felt it was unwise to ask Afroman to do something so dexterous involving a naked flame. Plus I’m not sure strong coffee shortly before bed would have been a good idea for me. We just requested the bill and were delighted to see it came to a mere £23 in total. Getting a receipt was a slight challenge, but we left a generous tip for the delicious food and incredible cabaret of the barely conscious but very happy waiter.

We walked home full of good food and mirth at Brixton’s answer to Manuel. This is the fourth or fifth time I have eaten at Asmara and is the only time the service has been so strange, but the food has always been excellent. I heartily recommend it as a relaxed, budget friendly place to eat, especially if there is a big group so you have the chance to share a wider variety of dishes. I’ll back as soon as possible as it’s one of my favourite spots in Brixton to eat!

2 replies
  1. Margo
    Margo says:

    I have been really keen to try Eritrean cooking after having some coffee at a stall run by impossibly calm Eritreans at a refugee fair in Auckland. I say impossibly calm, because the coffee sent me into the stratosphere – it was the single strongest brew that has passed my lips.

  2. miss_south
    miss_south says:

    You’ll have to venture over to Brixton then. There are actually 3 Eritrean restaurants within walking distance of my house. You can laugh when I try the coffee and get my entire caffeine intake for the year in one go!

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