Tucked away on Victoria Park’s strip of multicultural shops is a little slice of Eritrea. Inside, there’s always coffee on the boil and something hearty simmering on the stove. Owner Seble Weldu Musazghi, or Echye, as she is affectionately known (a muddle of the Eritrean word for aunt that has stuck fast), gives such a warm welcome that her company is as much of a reason to visit as her rich and nourishing food. It’s no wonder many local Ethiopians and Eritreans drop by to eat, chat and bask in the sweet smell of coffee, clarified butter and home.
For Echye, home has been many places. Born in Eritrea and raised in Ethiopia as an Eritrean national, Echye comes from a Catholic family of twelve and it was her father who taught her how to cook. “My father loved cooking,” she says and fondly recalls her father’s love for pasta.
Situated on the Red Sea, Eritrea has had a long history of colonisers. In 1941 the British expelled the Italians, who settled during the 19th century, but the Italian love of pasta has lingered. “I learnt Italian food from my dad – we used to eat pasta at home. In fact, Eritreans eat pasta two to three times a week; we love lasagne and minestrone,” says Echye. Though Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisines are very similar, the country’s coastline means eggplants, tomatoes and seafood are abundant.
However, in 1991, the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence with Ethiopia ended and in 1998 Echye found herself deported back to the now independent Eritrea.
Not to be defeated, Echye did what she did best and cooked her heart out. “I started from scratch and had a cafe/restaurant at the airport,” she says. But a higher power, the Vatican, came calling. “My uncle was a priest. One day, the bishop called and said, ‘I need a chef for the Vatican ambassador in Sudan!’ So I came in on a Friday and on Saturday I got the job!” she recalls.
After working in Sudan for two years, Echye migrated to Perth in 2007 with her daughter, Meareg, joining her two sons and daughter Simret, who had migrated from Addis Ababa in 2001. “Eritrean families are close. Very close. You live and work as a family and even though I didn’t grow up in Eritrea, this is what life is to us,” says Simret.
For Echye, the move to Australia meant starting over a second time. While she worked jobs in aged care, Echye dreamed of opening a little food place of her own. “So many of our house guests said we should open a restaurant,” says Meareg, “So we said to Mum that if you don’t do it, you’ll always be talking about it.” With her family behind her, Echye’s Restaurant opened in 2012. It’s popular with diners who have travelled to the Horn of Africa. “People who have been to Ethiopia say the food is better here,” whispers Simret, who says her mum’s cooking has a loyal following.
Echye’s injera, a traditional spongy flatbread, is so good that local Eritreans and Ethiopians often buy hers instead of making their own. Traditionally made with teff flour, Echye’s injera is made with sorghum flour, which imparts a pink hue and rises better in Perth’s climate. Just like at home, the injera is served in a mesob basket to everyone at the table and eaten communally.
“Everyone in Eritrea – whether you are Christian or Muslim – prays before eating. As a blessing before starting the meal, the father will cut a piece of injera for each family member,” says Simret. She points to the painting by Eritrean artist Almaz Yemane of a mother holding up a light as her family eats. “When you eat together you learn to share and to bond,” she says.
Always eaten with the right hand, pieces of injera are torn off and wrapped bite-by-bite around braises of meat and vegetables that are typically rich in garlic, turmeric and other spices. Many dishes are vegan to accommodate the various fasting and religious diets of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
Vegetables are cooked in inventive ways like the creamy shiro, ground chickpeas served with stuffed chillies, and hamli, collard greens in a mild onion and tomato sauce. Azifa, a fresh lentil salad served with sweet himbasha bread, is Echye’s signature dish and a must-eat.
The cooking is labour intensive, but Echye doesn’t mind. “Everything is prepared from scratch because fresh ingredients are the key to good food,” she says. Made from scratch, both tesmi, a spiced clarified butter, and ajibo, a feta-like cottage cheese, feature in kitfo, a dish of minced beef with clarified butter. It is sprinkled with a mitmita chilli spice blend and is an indulgent and warming meal. “Kitfo is considered a special treat, but what my family and customers really love is zhigni,” says Echye. She braises the lamb stew (also commonly spelled zighini) for hours to bring out the full flavour of berbere, a blend of 20 spices that she sources direct from Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Drinking coffee is also an important ritual. “In Eritrea, they make coffee two or three times every day and you never drink coffee by yourself – everybody in the community comes with something to share. If someone is alone or someone has passed away, people go and have a coffee with that person left behind. There is no such thing as offering a cup of tea – a cup of tea is when people are in a hurry,” explains Simret.
The bun (coffee) ceremony starts off with green coffee beans roasted over hot coals. The beans are coarsely ground and then slowly heated with water until it boils over the neck of the jebena, a black clay coffee pot.
Simret says the act of having coffee calls for patience and respect. “We sit, smell the grounds and boil it slowly, then wait for it to settle,” she says. The thick coffee is poured into tiny finjal cups and enjoyed for at least three rounds. The third round, bereka, meaning blessed, is considered lucky.
Greeting diners, friends and family alike, Echye’s family is always making sure everyone has enough to eat. There’s little distinction between food, family and faith and on that Simret muses, “Your family is your culture. You never eat alone, it’s very communal and you always cook extra in case somebody visits. There’s always food and that’s our culture.”
401 Albany Hwy, Victoria Park, WA, (08) 6161 0029, echyesrestaurant.com.au
East African flavours around Australia
Addis Ababa Cafe
Lined with family photos and Ethiopian knick-knacks, lose yourself in East Africa by way of Adelaide. Make a beeline for the mixed platter served with rolls of house-made injera, but make sure you save space for the coffee, spiced with cardamom and cinnamon. 462 Port Rd, West Hindmarsh, (08) 8241 5185.
As close to home-cooked as you can get, Little Africa serves big-hearted food in a tiny space. Dig into the spicy asa zighini (fish in berbere sauce) or derek tibs (lamb with peppers) and wash it down with a bottle of Ethiopian beer or coffee. 358 Victoria St, North Melbourne, (03) 9329 8018.
A not-for-profit enterprise, Mu’ooz provides employment for newly arrived refugees while breaking down social barriers with food. Try the homely kitcha fit fit, a dish of bread cooked with berbere, or for a taste of Eritrea’s Italian heritage the spicy lasagne is the way to go. 54 Mollison St, West End, (07) 3844 8378.
Photography Frances Andrijich.
As seen in Feast magazine, September 2014, Issue 35.