Monday, August 26, 2013

A taste of east Africa in downtown Footscray

My friends looked after my kids the other day and brought them along to a birthday party at Dinknesh Lucy.  When I picked them up from the restaurant, I asked my eldest, "So, did you like the yummy African food?"  She looked at me and said, "Yes, and actually, Mum, it was Ethiopian food".  Touch√©.  I guess that's what you get raising kids in Footscray - they have a very keen sense of culture!


If you didn't already know, I run Footscray Food Tours in partnership with the CAE.  I've just begun running one that focuses on Footscray's rich repository of east African food and culture, in which we explore drinks from butter-infused coffee to hibiscus tea, herbal remedies from Sudan and street food from Somalia.  I thought I'd share with you a few snippets from the time I spent researching this tour!


When I was running a tour last weekend, someone asked me beforehand where they could buy coffee beans in Footscray.  The question threw me for a minute as I had to ask, "Roasted or unroasted?"  While coffee is often thought of as brown, shiny roasted beans, in Ethiopia the roasting part is an integral part of preparing coffee and hence they are sold in their light green, unroasted form.


This is Rozenn from one of my favourite spots in Footscray, Konjo Cafe, demonstrating a traditional coffee ceremony.  The green beans in the bowl in her hand are tipped onto the black flat plate which is above a brazier of charcoal and cooked until dark brown and beginning to pop.  They are then ground, placed in a "jebena" (the black pot seen at the bottom left) and brought to the boil.


The resulting coffee is probably closest to plunger coffee and is really good.  It's served black and usually sugar is added.  Rozenn's partner Abdi is from the southern Gurage people, for whom butter is a very important staple food and cultural element.  His tribe drink coffee with butter and salt added!  The butter is not as odd as you might think - it's almost like drinking coffee with cream, as is done in the States.


Depending on the season, Rozenn and Abdi might have some rue to add to your brew.  In Western culture this herb is most commonly seen in old "herbals" as an ingredient to some sort of poultice or another, but it is an integral part of the traditional Ethiopian kitchen.  It has a very strong, slightly smoky flavour - give it a try if it's available!


I attended Rozenn and Abdi's inaugural Food and Wine Festival event back in March which explored Ethiopian coffee culture (no, I don't have a posting backlog problem.  No, not at all ;) .  That's Abdi above serving some brilliant tibs (a chunky meat dish).  Konjo have great food and are best known in the community for their kitfo, which is a dish of raw mince mixed with spiced butter and served with plain homemade ricotta-like cheese.  You can have it slightly cooked if you're not game enough to try it 100% raw!


While coffee is Ethiopia's staple drink, its staple food is injera.  This unleavened bread begins as a batter that is fermented overnight (similar to sourdough).  It's then deftly poured onto a griddle in a snail shell shape to cook before being lifted off.  Above, Meftuha is showing us how it's done - she's the owner of Mesnoy, Footscray's oldest injera bakery, so she knows a thing or two.  I often see Mesnoy's delivery van when I'm criss-crossing Melbourne, be it in Clifton Hill or way out on the south-eastern, and always get a tingle of westie pride when I spot it.


But injera isn't just bread - it's cutlery and plate as well!  These lamb tibs were a particularly excellent version.  To eat, rip off a piece of injera, press into the little dish of mitmita (seasoned chilli powder) and grab a saucy chunk of meat.


These tibs were from African Cuisine, just a couple of doors down from Mesnoy and owned by Fasil who is just lovely.  I believe they have live music on Saturday nights.


Injera isn't only consumed in Ethiopia but across the wider east African region, including in Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia.  This is suqaar, a chunky lamb dish that is quite similar to tibs.  While here it was served with injera, at other Somali restaurants you might also see it served with spaghetti - a legacy of the failed Italian colonisation of east Africa, perhaps!  (I highly recommend the Somali fare at Safari in Ascot Vale, too.)


You can find this and other Somali dishes at Africa Lounge on Nicholson Street, which is run by the delightful Abdi.  Africa Lounge doesn't keep strict opening hours, so if you do fancy popping in, have a back-up plan - Addis Abeba next door is one of my favourite Ethiopian restaurants anywhere in the 'scray.


Or, take a wander back up Nicholson and try Khartoum Centre for some fantastic Sudanese food.  The menu here is on a big lit-up board behind the counter, and its diversity really speaks to Sudan's geographical position, bordered by Egypt to the north and (pre-South Sudanese independence) DR Congo, Uganda and Kenya to the south.


There are a great spread of chargrilled meats served with breads, salad and dips that have a Middle Eastern feel (see the shaia above - chunky, smoky lamb served with red lentil and yoghurt dips)...  Then there are more "African" dishes like this taglia, a minced meat and dried okra powder stew served between two leaves of injera.  (This dish is served with the injera closed over.  Don't do what we did and sit there staring at it, waiting for the rest of the dish for a good 10 minutes before we finally moved the top layer and realised there was food underneath!  Not my finest moment!)


In the last couple of years, owner Muhammad has expanded next door and recently begun baking his own bread - a delicious cross between pita and Turkish bread.  Here's his dad showing off the new oven!

I hope you've enjoyed this mini tour of Footscray's east African eateries.  My tour was recently featured in Time Out magazine, and you can read more and book via my website,  I'll leave you with this amazing Burundian drumming troupe, as seen at Footscray's recent Emerge festival.  They were brilliant - the video doesn't do them justice!

Khartoum Centre Restaurant & Cafe on Urbanspoon


  1. I think I'm ready to get back onto the injera saddle ... now I'm hungry and there's still a couple more hours till lunch!!

    1. If you make friends with injera again, definitely try the kisra at Khartoum Centre. It's kind of next level injera. And if you hate it, they have rice. ;)

  2. What a fantastic write up, thank you! I would love to try these places if they have vegan dishes :) Westie pride, yeah!!!

    1. Pleasure! And sorry for this belated reply to your lovely comment. :) Most Ethiopian places' vegetarian dishes will almost certainly be vegan, as Ethiopian Christians "fast" (aka, go vegan) for varying periods throughout the year including (I think) two days per week. Don't be shy to ask! I think you'd be safe with the felafel plate at Khartoum Centre too, and just say no yoghurt dip.

  3. Keep up the great work!

  4. Glad to see you're spreading the word about "African Cuisine" - what a gem!

    1. It's a winner, isn't it? But just so hard for people to Google - 'African Cuisine, Footscray' tends to bring up pretty general results!

  5. This meal is unbelievably cool. And one of the many, many reasons why I love Melbourne. There's so many places in the world that I dream of visiting, but I know that it may be hard. Melbourne being such a melting pot of almost every culture I can think of in this world has always fulfilled this "dream" in some way but letting me experience as much as I can of it through the food they serve here. It's always authentic and true to the people I love it. Really, really love this post. Thank you, Lauren. I must come here with my African friend soon. Having him there to share it with me and explain more about his culture would just be so awesome.

    1. Make sure you stop by and leave me some more info, Winston - I'm sure your friend has so much he can teach all of us!

  6. Hi Lauren,

    I've been following your blog for a long time and always get fascinated with African food available in the west. But I guess I'm a bit overwhelmed with which to try as our inaugural tasting; everything seems good.

    Which would you recommend? Preferably something with more choices of vegetarian other than just the lentil stews.

    Thanks Lauren

    1. Hi there! It's a good problem to have in that yep, everything seems good - because it is! In my experience, Ethiopian food has a standard repertoire of about 15 key dishes, but restaurants tweak them slightly. For a classic vegetarian combination, I would recommend Addis Abeba in the lower part of Nicholson Street, near Buckley. Bitsat makes amazing tikil gomen which is cabbage and carrot and also makes a lovely salad. African Taste in Seddon also do a good veg combo called a "fasting food" plate which has some twists like just-cooked French beans. You can also seek out a dish called "dubba" which is slow-cooked pumpkin, sometimes with eggplant added. I've only seen it on menus at Little Africa in North Melbourne, African Taste, and The Abyssinian in Kensington.

      Abdi at Africa Lounge has made beautiful fool (broad beans). The other spot I know that is open more regularly is Safari in Ascot Vale, although I get the feeling there is less of a tradition of vegetarianism in Somalia...hence less veg options.

      If you go to Khartoum Centre, if Muhammad the owner is there, just have a chat to him about your options. He's really lovely. Off the top of my head, try the fool (broad bean mash) and the felafel.

      I hope that helps! But seriously, if it's all too overwhelming, just start with a vegetarian combo somewhere. Once you know what dishes you like, ask their names and you'll be good to try them at other places the next time.


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