Gerry Corner discovers food and friendship from the birthplace of humankind
A YEAR or so ago, my pal Steve and I walked into a newly-opened Eritrean restaurant down Kensington way to a warm if rather perplexed welcome, suggesting we were the first customers to hail from this side of mid-east Africa.
This initial encounter with the region was one we would not forget, for the food (terrific), the price (about thirty quid less than it ought to have been), and the generosity of spirit displayed towards us.
Hilina is managing the remarkable feat of juggling roles as owner, proprietor, meeter, greeter, barkeeper, server, chief, cook, pot washer and conversationalist
It came to mind the other week on a visit to Abysinnia Kitchen, an Ethiopian restaurant in Wirral, which has – rightly, as it turns out – been earning enthusiastic reviews from the Heswallites.
Ethiopia and their Eritrean neighbours in the Horn of Africa have shared links for two and a half thousand years. Old foes and old friends. Two were one for periods and while these days fiercely independent of each other, families live either side of the border, and much, though by no means all, cuisine is common to both.
In each, food is commonly served on injera, a pancake-like sourdough flatbread, its appealingly sponge-like texture an efficient medium for absorbing the juices of wots and other spice-rich stews. Meals are finished with coffee, which involves a ritualised ceremony that can take an hour and more from roasting to toasting.
These things are more than food and drink, they are about friendship and unity and giving, and may explain why, despite we and our Eritrean hosts barely grasping a word of the other, the night ended with us, at their insistence, sharing their table, their supper, hot mugs and warm hugs. We left, friendship groups and waistlines expanded.
Abyssinia Kitchen – named in memoriam to the ancient Ethiopian empire, birthplace of coffee and, quite possibly, humankind – occupies a unit in a pretty unremarkable row of retail and business units on Pensby Road, Heswall.
Inside, our host, Hilina, is managing the pretty remarkable feat of juggling roles as owner, proprietor, meeter, greeter, barkeeper, server, chief (indeed, only) cook, pot washer and conversationalist. Weekends she has help, but tonight she does the lot; it’s quiet, but even so…
A modest, L-shaped room, accommodating around 20 covers, is quietly tasteful with rugs, artworks and other reminders of her African origins. A handsome bar is made from recycled wood and, should you require one, distinctive, authentic Ethiopian handbags are for sale.
The food, like the bags, is bona fide Ethiopian. Central to many dishes is berbere spice, a fiery (berbere means “hot), uniquely Ethiopian blend of berbere chilli, coriander, cardomom, fenugreek and more.
Vegetarians are well served and sharing platters, combining five of the meat, lentil and vegetable dishes - a good introduction for the uninitiated.
Only two starters are on offer and as neither of us is in a soup state of mind, we share meatballs (£4.95), made from scratch on ordering; pork and beef mixed up with garlic, rosemary and a hint of berbere; three big, juicy, roughly hewn specimens. Dip them in accompanying awase, a sweet hot sauce of spices blended with honey, red wine vinegar and olive oil for great balls of fire, Ethiopia-style.
Mains are served on injera, with rice offered as an alternative. Ye beg alicha (£11.95) is tender pieces of lamb, carrot and spices in meaty gravy; on one level a luscious lamb stew, scouse with a chilli kick in the pants on another.
Miser wot (£8.95), red lentils stewed with tomato, onion, garlic, ginger and berbere spice is one of those dishes that is so much more than its constituent parts; soft and warmly spiced, soothing as a mother’s love.
On the side we have atkelet (£4.50), chunks of cabbage, carrot and potato, the prosaic made poetry via a flash in the pan with turmeric, garlic and chillies.
Here, you are encouraged, but it’s not obligatory (knives and forks provided), to eat with the fingers, according to tradition, which involves tearing off a piece of injera and scooping up the topping.
Buna Ethiopian coffee, which has body without bitterness, is prepared and presented with TLC btw.
I would, I assured our host at supper’s end, be back. Or, as they say in downtown Addis Ababa… Abyssinia!
Abyssinia Kitchen,184-200 Pensby Road, Heswall, Wirral, CH60 7RJ Tel. 0151 306 5358.
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All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
meatballs 9, ye beg alicha 7, miser wot 8, atkelet 7.5
Best juggling act ever