Footscray has become famous for its African eateries. Behind an ever-swinging door on Nicholson Street, Ethiopian restaurant Ras Dashen has late breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee sorted for a constant stream of customers.
Owner Wondimu Alemu hails from the eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa, located between the capital, Addis Ababa and the Somali border. But when a military junta replaced the government in the 70s, Alemu was forced to leave the country after protesting the regime with his teachers and fellow students. He escaped to Sudan and spent time in a refugee camp before being resettled in New Zealand with his now-wife, Alemitu Aberra. "Many young people with democratic ideals were killed, tortured or put in prison,” he says. "Leaving was the safest thing I could have done."
In 2000, he moved to Australia with his family and despite an engineering background, it was his knack for growing community and Aberra’s traditional cooking skills that led the couple to open Ras Dashen.
Here, food should be shared and it's all brought out on one large, exuberant platter. It's best to order one or two mains and a number of tibs: small (but rich) sides of spiced meat or vegetables. You might recognise the name doro wat — it's by far Ethiopia's most recognisable dish: a spicy chicken stew with a hard-boiled egg on top. Don't forget the injera — a spongy but dense, sorghum and wheat sourdough flatbread — Ethiopia's national staple. The khey wot (beef stew) or gored gored (spiced and buttered, rare beef) are great beef options. And if you're around for breakfast, try ful: an Arabic/Sudanese spiced bean, cheese and egg meal.
Thanks to the country's Coptic roots, much of the food is vegetarian or vegan-friendly — lentils and chickpeas feature heavily here, like in the misir wot: spiced, powdered chickpeas cooked in chilli sauce. For a taste of everything, order the beyaynetu, a combination of lentils and salad dishes.
Wash it all down with an Ethiopian soda called Ambo Water or an Ethiopian beer. If you're lucky, tej (honey wine) could make a rare appearance as a drinks special.
Coffee is serious at Ras Dashen (the word itself is said to derive from the old region of Kaffa) and if you ask for Ethiopian coffee you definitely won't be handed a cappuccino. Ethiopian green beans are roasted and ground in-house, then slowly boiled and decanted into a jebena, a clay pot made in rural Ethiopia. It's presented on a tray with a lump of fragrant, smoking frankincense, a pleasant, pungent scent that quickly fills the entire restaurant. Pour a dash of coffee into your cup first: it's very hot and this warms up the vessel.
Ras Dashen's decor is dark, earthy and cosy, channelling mountain, desert and village. Look out for the thatched roof of an Ethiopian cottage hanging from the ceiling which – with trinkets, paintings and glimpses of the Amharic alphabet – gives the place a rural feel.
For Alemu, the name Ras Dashen represents 'bright future'. It's actually the name of Ethiopia's highest mountain but it's also a symbol of hope for many Ethiopians.
Lead image: Instagram - @ninawanders
Ras Dashen is open Tuesday to Sunday, 7pm–4pm
121 Nicholson St, Footscray
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