Saba Alemayoh didn't think twice about making sure the restaurant she runs with her mother is 100 per cent gluten-free; it happened effortlessly.
She tells SBS Food, "My sister is coeliac, and as a result of that, my mother became very aware of gluten-free cooking. She realised that if she went back to the way of cooking back home, a lot of the things were gluten-free."
Saba's mother, Tekebash Gebre, is from Ethiopia, where most of the cuisine is incidentally gluten-free. At Saba's Ethiopian Restaurant in Fitzroy, she prepares the same dishes she makes at home. "The feeling of this place is like coming to your family home… If your family is Ethiopian," says Alemayoh.
Meals are based around thick stews, known as wot, served on injera, a fermented flatbread made with teff flour, an ancient grain native to the Horn of Africa. "We ferment it over 72 hours; the process is similar to sourdough. We bake it flat on one side only, and steam the top of it," explains Alemayoh. The result is a tangy and spongy flatbread, perfect to pick up the stews with your hands.
Your choice of stews is laid on top of the injera. Because many Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians and don't eat animal products during certain periods, many of the stews are vegan.
Alemayoh's absolute favourites are keyih sebhi, a slow-cooked lamb stew, and birsen, a split red lentil stew. "I used to eat split rend lentil every day at home. I'd ask my mom to make it again and again," she says.
Ethiopian cuisine involves a lot of different spices and chilli. Both of Alemayoh's favourites are cooked with a traditional spice and chilli mix called Berbere. "There are over 50 different spices in the chilli mix, so as a result, it tends to have layers in the flavours rather than straight-up chilli flavour," she says.
The menu counts a dozen of other stews you can choose from, including diced pumpkin, okra and lamb, and yellow split peas in turmeric.
Unless you're familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, Alemayoh suggests asking for input instead of going for a meat, potato and salad combo.
"I recommend eating Ethiopian food on the day you're feeling adventurous and you're ready to let go of control because when people come in, it's best for them to tell us what they like and ask what we recommend because there are complementary dishes and things that make sense together.
"I recommend eating Ethiopian food on the day you're feeling adventurous and you're ready to let go of control."
And don't leave without a cup of Ethiopian coffee; this is where the mighty bean is originally from after all. The grains are roasted in a pan, then ground and brewed in a clay pot. It takes longer than making a cup of espresso, but that's the point.
"Ethiopian coffee is not about caffeine it's about the whole process, it's about the hanging out and relaxing," says Alemayoh. "It's the only way we serve coffee."
Catch Helen Tzouganatos whipping up lush gluten-free meals in the brand new first series of Loving Gluten Free at 8:30pm Thursdays from 17 October to 19 December on SBS Food (channel 33), and later on SBS On Demand. You can watch her at Saba's Ethiopian here:
Saba's Ethiopian Kitchen
328 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy VIC
Tue – Thu 5:30 – 10:30 pm
Fri – Sun 12 – 3 pm and 5:30 – 10:30 pm
This not your average lentil soup – Berbere spice mix is what makes it stand out.