Ethiopian cuisine pops up in Hong Kong for the first time

Cook Helina Tesega is showing the city what's 'wot' when it comes to Ethiopian dining.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 December, 2014, 6:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 December, 2014, 11:12am

There's something of a dark irony to promoting Ethiopian dining, given the country's tragic history of famine.

Just over 30 years ago, the BBC transmitted devastating images from northern Ethiopia showing 15,000 children dying from starvation. The broadcast moved Irish singer Bob Geldof to organise charity concert Live Aid, and brought Ethiopia's food crisis to the world's attention.

But times have changed. Today Ethiopia has one of the continent's fastest growing non-oil-dependent economies.

Outside Asia, the Ethiopian food movement is already big, especially in the US where Washington, New York and Los Angeles all have thriving Ethiopian food districts.

Now one woman is on a mission to bring the cuisine to Hong Kong. Helina Tesega recently opened a pop-up kitchen called Eat Ethio - the only provider of Ethiopian cuisine in the city. Tesega jokes that Eat Ethio is her way of telling the world, "Yes, y'all, we have food."

Eat Ethio started in Shanghai, where Tesega lived for seven years. Cooking her mother's home recipes, she began selling the cuisine at local markets.

By the time she left the city this year, Tesega was running the kitchen of a friend's bar four nights a week.

While people love the casual, fork-free style of communal dining, there's another reason Ethiopian food has taken off.

"Many Ethiopians are Orthodox Tewahedo Christians who fast throughout the year, avoiding meat or dairy. We use a lot of grains, legumes and split peas," says Tesega, who was born in Awassa city to a Yemeni father, who is Muslim, and an Ethiopian mother, who is Christian.

"Vegans are trying to find dishes that are not bland, which is why the Ethiopian food movement took off in America," she says. "It's very diverse, and flavoursome."

Ethiopian food draws on an unusually vast range of spices. Bebere, for example, looks like paprika but it is made of ground coriander, cumin, cinnamon, black peppercorn, ginger, chilli, turmeric, fenugreek, sacred basil and nutmeg, and gives a deep flavour to dishes.

Vegetarians might have hijacked the American movement, but Tesega's Ethiopian fare, authentically, includes meat.

Her signature dishes include doro wot, a berbere chicken stew, served with half a boiled egg, and ricotta cheese to cool the spice ("good Ethiopian food should not be too hot"); and minchet abish, minced beef spiced with fenugreek.

There's also a tuna kitfo (in Ethiopia, it would have been made with raw beef, but Tesega added an Asian twist) served with toasted kale, a replacement for the traditional East African green, ye'abesha gomen. Tesega also makes her own injera, a circular sourdough bread which traditionally sits in the middle of Ethiopian dining tables, serving as a giant plate.

Wots (sauce-like curries) and sides are served on the bread and diners tear away pieces to scoop up the dishes.

Tesega's injera comes with a twist. "Everyone thinks that in Ethiopia we eat together around one big injera, which we do at holidays, of course. But when I'm at home we serve it rolled up on our plates. So that's how I make it here," she says.

"Ethiopians cannot live without injera. It's their whole way of life."

Lately, the bread has been overshadowed by its main ingredient, the world's smallest food grain, teff. Health food stores in Europe and America have gone wild for the nutritious gluten-free "super" grain. Talking about teff's popularity agitates Tesega.

"People are saying, 'Move over quinoa, teff is the new super grain.' But I don't want what happened in Bolivia to happen in Ethiopia, where local people could not afford quinoa."

That would be like Hongkongers not being able to afford noodles, she says.

For now, the Ethiopian government is limiting exports of the grain, Tesega says.

It was while working as director of communications at the African pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 that Tesega realised she could raise awareness of such cultural issues, as well as Ethiopian history and traditions, through the "soft power" of food.

"Ethiopia has never been colonised. We have thousands of years of civilisation. Ethiopian jazz is a great music genre. Coffee originated from Ethiopia. But nobody realises all this."

The African nation grew the original native population of coffee in the 14th century, she explains, which was then cultivated by Arabs.

"Now it's such a hipster thing but, growing up, people really cared about having good coffee."

Tesega recently took over the kitchen at pancake house Stack in Sai Ying Pun (a clever hook-up, given injera's pancake-like properties). Suke Quto coffee, from the western Guji region, served in a traditional clay gabana, was the final course.

A light reddish-coloured bean, its consistency is vastly different from typical dark-roasted brews. "I grew up with coffee being fruity and smooth," Tesega says, "When I moved to China, I was fascinated that coffee was so bitter."

She hopes to sell Ethiopian coffee in Hong Kong, along with the clay pans and gabanas needed to roast and serve it. "I want to build Eat Ethio as a lifestyle brand," she says.

Tesega has a cookbook of Ethiopian recipes coming out next year and will be selling authentic spices made by her mother back in Ethiopia.

As well as more restaurant pop-ups, she plans to host private dining sessions in her home, because "when people are in your own space, they learn more about your culture". An Ethiopian coffee shop might also be in the pipeline.

"There are so many things that are great about Ethiopian food and culture," she says. "I just want to make sure people have the chance to try it."