Holes in the Wall: Habesha

Another Lent, another visit to Manchester, another attempt to visit one of those [cheap] ‘hidden gems’ that I had been too preoccupied to visit during my years of living there. Seemingly the only other place that falls into this category is This & That, as otherwise on my return visits I think I have either gone for coffee, to Wetherspoons, or to Slice (my go-to place for Rome-style pizza, or somewhere to sit that is quieter than a bar and doesn’t require a full sit-down meal when I’m meeting someone at 6.30pm. Also does pretty good gelato, for Manchester. Why I have not yet written about this in my ‘search for the perfect pizza’ series should be attributed to my laziness, and that this parenthesis is pretty much the whole of it).

Carl was my dinner mate.

The entrance is next to a bin and a takeaway and opposite a sauna in the Village. It is on the first floor and not immediately apparent. Minor cardio on entry is in the form of walking up a wrought iron spiral staircase, where you enter into a larger-than-expected, moderately decorated empty (if you are going at 1.30pm on a Saturday) restaurant.

This was my first foray into Ethiopian food. A former colleague of mine who on the whole has given solid restaurant recommendations (see: The Three Mariners, which has since become my family’s go to ‘celebration’ restaurant) to me once mentioned that Ethiopian food is worth trying, although he had unfortunately told this to someone who took his advice when they were meeting their girlfriend’s parents for the first time. You eat the plate in Ethiopian dining; it is not the place for grace and good impressions.

Two (I presume) Ethiopian women eat lunch with their hands while watching football on the TV. Carl incredulously laughs that I have done it again. We take a seat. Five minutes later a menu is given to us. Fifteen minutes later, after some gesturing and eye contact, our order is taken.

The menu is so short that I will copy and paste it here for you:

BEEF
Kitfo  £6.50
Lean minced beef seasoned with chili powder (mitmita), herbal butter and cardamom. (Raw, Medium or Welldone)   (Hot and Spicy)
Special Kitfo   £7.50
Lean minced beef seasoned with chili powder (mitmita), herbal butter and cardamom, served with cottage cheese. (Raw, Medium or Welldone)   (Hot and Spicy)
CHICKEN
Doro Wot  £6.50
Tender chicken leg or thigh slow cooked with onion, ginger, garlic, hot pepper (berbere) and herbal butter. Also served with hard-boiled egg.  (Medium hot and Spicy)
LAMB
Lega Tibs   £6.50
Tender lamb cubes well cooked with onion, tomato and green pepper.  (Mild)
Awaze Tibs  £6.50
Tender lamb cubes well cooked with onion, tomato and hot pepper sauce.  (Hot and Spicy)
Yebeg Wot  £6.50
Tender lamb cubes slow cooked with onion, ginger, garlic, hot pepper (berbere) and herbal butter.   (Medium Hot and Spicy)
VEGETARIAN
Yetsom Beyaynetu   £6.50
Spicy red lentils, yellow split peas, cabbage and carrots, spinach and house salad.
Shiro    £6.00
Powdered chick peas cooked with onion, garlic and pepper.   (Medium Spicy)
*All food is served with a traditional sour flatbread called Injera.

As part of my half-hearted attempt to cut down on red meat – and also because I heard from nowhere in particular that this was the archetypal Ethiopian dish – I went for the Doro Wat. On a comedown from Veganuary but still with this in mind, Carl went for the Yetsom Beyaynetu, or “that one” as he so Englishly put it.

Another twenty or so minutes before the food showed up. I don’t really know. I was hungry, but we were talking. Carl banging on about how he flew in Alan Sugar’s private jet, me jabbering away about my worldwide travels over the past six months. How insufferable we both are. White people.

A moment in life that I will forever treasure is having food brought to a table and having genuinely no idea how to tackle it. Having spent a couple of weeks in Malaysia (I am very well travelled) I thought that I would be well prepared to eat with my hands. The Doro Wat came served in a bowl. I am not used to eating something so liquid with my hands, even with the Injera, which came rolled on a plate looking like a large pile of hand towels. Carl’s Yetsom Beyaynetu looked more impressive, and healthy, than mine, served on a large, whole Injera with the food being lined down the middle. No description on the menu could have quite prepared us for how the food actually looked. Google thankfully can.

Source: TripAdvisor. Doro Wat in top left; main plate Yetsom Beyaynetu with whatever’s in the bottom left added on for good measure

The service isn’t fast, but they know a bemused look when they see one.

“Have you eaten here before?”

Take note Nando’s and other restaurants that have a slightly askew dining style, there are but a few cuisines that actually may need explaining, all the others we can figure out. Choose a spice and order at the till? This is quite a simple concept. Not once during my time working at Nando’s did anyone seem confused about how to eat there, and I was just left feeling patronising at telling adults how to do something so perfectly simple. At Habesha, Carl was incredibly grateful that the waitress explained (and even demonstrated, handing me back a torn up Injera once the display was done) how to eat. It was like being a child again, complete with poorly using your hands as cutlery. The waitress brought napkins.

The Doro Wat was spicy and rich, with a flavour palate somewhat similar to Malaysian, but (and I say this having only had limited food from here) with a very distinctively African flavour. There was an egg in there too. Someone please show me how to eat Doro Wat successfully as my eating was really a shit show. Carl’s dish was our preferred of the two. Less heavy, easier to eat, and with a salad on the edge it even felt slightly healthy. I quickly learned that my spice tolerance isn’t what it used to be. It was large. We didn’t finish the bread.

We stayed for three hours. Despite being full they were in no rush to make us leave. I like that in a restaurant. It plays right into the mantra of DGAF 2017. And also – quite relevant in the context of our conversation about identity and other cultures – white, English Carl for once got the opportunity to feel what it was like to be a minority in a restaurant.

Another success for unconventional eateries.

Habesha, First Floor, 29-31 Sackville St, Manchester M1 3LZ

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Holes in the Wall: This & That Cafe

Ever since I moved to London I have tried to make my return visits to Manchester ones which are memorable and explorative for my friends and I. In spite of having lived in Manchester for some six years, it has been on the sporadic return visits that I seem to have better explored some of the city’s best ‘hidden’ restaurants (I say ‘hidden’ more in terms of geographic location and also not being a chain), although This and That has featured on a large number of ‘Best Cheap Eats in Manchester’-type listicles that I used to wile away my work days reading, and it also proudly proclaims itself to be ‘Manchester’s Favourite Curry House’ (I thought that was Mughli, which I have also never visited) on its website.

It was March 2016. My friend Carl and I went to the Chinese Centre for Contemporary Art and learned that Chinese Contemporary Art wasn’t really our thing and that our years lived in Manchester having avoided the gallery weren’t wasted ones. That isn’t to say that the gallery is bad – indeed, it is quite good – just that we have not yet reached a stage in our lives that it is something that we can understand and fully appreciate. As such, we talked about relationships and Lenten sacrifices.

We met a third friend just before midday and ambled through the Manchester rain for, at 12pm, the earliest curry of all of our lives. How did three twentysomethings manage to reach this age without having a breakfast curry? Why, a commitment to a healthy diet, of course, says the girl who used to eat nearly expired Nando’s chocolate cake at 7am.

My mother often says that she doesn’t think that I would like something because it would be ‘beneath’ me. To be fair to her, several of the restaurants that I have been to since I moved to London have been of the Ivy Café (one of my favourites) and SushiSamba (a disappointment) variety, and these are the restaurants I tend to tell her about so she can live vicariously through me. However, when listing my preferred restaurants, often they are those which lazy writers such as myself would call ‘authentic’, that is to say ‘a type of cuisine cooked by the person from the country that it originated’. Rent prices mean that this type of restaurant is usually situated in a less-than-glamorous side of town, and that if you are going out to eat with me you should either expect to have to wear a tie or follow me down an alley.

Alley it is. A wet, stinking Manchester alley. The entrance is a metal door.

Source: This & That. Picture the door closed and the alley wet.

After briefly wondering if I was leading them to a premature death, my friends were pleasantly surprised that there was indeed a restaurant inside and that the promise of three curries for £5.50 (£3.90 if you’re going all vegetarian) was true.

Tables and service are cafeteria-style, though the staff are friendlier than my school lunchladies even if on asking for a recommendation they just piled the food on (lamb, chicken, daal, all fine choices). The menu is a ‘day by day’ menu rather than a regular menu, so really it’s a place to go when you fancy ‘curry’ rather than if you have your heart set on a rogan josh or whatever your curry of choice is. There are sauces and onions which can be added free of charge next to the cutlery station and jugs of water.

The three of us were impressed with the food. Maybe I was just impressed with the portions and that it is quite different from your regular Indian fare. I have since learned that I have stomach issues with curry and so the saltiness that I have tasted may have had more to do with that than the fineries of the food itself.

It wasn’t enough to put me off though, and on another occasion I took an ex-work colleague who, impressed by the portion size and ‘authenticity’, vowed to take her boyfriend here. Seven months on, she still hasn’t. On a completely different occasion when I still lived in Manchester, my friend tried to take me to a rice and three café, but all of them (Marhaba, Yadgar) were closed, as was a Korean place, and we had to settle on Thai food in a supermarket, which was two thumbs up on the ‘authenticity’ scale.

This is a Manchester institution for a reason, and worth a visit if you actually like and can handle Indian food. What accolades I am giving here!

Carl has since become my ‘friend that I take to weird places’, including the gallery next door to the gallery that I had actually intended on going to in which we spent an uncomfortable minute alone in a mirrored box with an equally confused Chinese tourist, to a near-empty thuggish pool hall, and for Ethiopian food (more on that later). In turn, I am his ‘friend who takes him to weird places that he can later take other friends to). A friendship to be treasured indeed. Such a shame that he is moving to North Carolina.

This & That Café, 3 Soap Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1EW