Last week the Lemurs visited Thrifty Gal in South London, and went to a restaurant I’ve had my eye on in a while: Asmara in Brixton. I love East African food and I used to eat at Ethiopian restaurants in New York and – perhaps surprisingly – in Iowa City. African cuisines have been fashionable in certain upscale food circles for a while, what with the success of Marcus Samuelsson and the emergence of South African food, but most people still haven’t embraced local African restaurants in the same way that East or South Asian cuisines have been popularised. It’s a shame, as Ethiopian and Eritrean food is delicious and healthy, with lots of grains, pulses and greens and sophisticated spicing. Of course, Thifty Gal is ever leery of strange ethnic restaurants and it’s really a sign of her friendship and generosity that she comes along with me on these forays. What she wants are white tablecloths and a nice bottle of wine, but what Asmara offers seemed to me like a fair trade: half the menu is vegetarian so she got a level of choice unprecedented in non-vegetarian restaurants.
Asmara is on Coldharbour Lane, just around the corner from Brixton Station and in a buzzing corner across the way from a popular jerk chicken takeout. Inside there are some traditional Eritrean stools and low tables, but most of the restaurant has western-style tables. (Thank goodness or Thrifty Gal really would have killed me!) We opted for the vegetarian platter, which included spicy chickpea shiro, or puree, stir fried spinach, two different kinds of lentils, an alicha stew with cabbage and green beans, and a salad. As with Ethiopian food, Eritrean dinners are eaten communally, with the dishes all served on a bed on injera, the pancake-y bread made from tef.
I’ll admit that Eritrean food doesn’t look terribly pretty. Some of my photographs looked spectacularly unappetising and it’s not a cuisine that lends itself to bloggy food porn shots. But the thing is, it tastes amazing: the red lentils with berbere spicing were a particular hit, and we greedily ordered some more spinach – this time with home-made cheese – because we were enjoying it so much. Since this food is served family style, we asked the waiter to bring us meat dishes on a separate plate, which gave us the advantage of yet more spongy injera to sop up. We had a hot minced lamb which I think was a zigni, and which disappeared very quickly, and a chicken wat, a thick stew, red with spices and rich with lots of clarified butter, which came in the traditional fashion with a boiled egg. Of course, adding to the lack of visual appeal is the fact that you eat Eritrean food with your hands, scooping up the stews in bits of injera. I love this – I love any food you can eat with your hands – but Mr Lemur is mildly horrified by getting his paws dirty. Hence, I got to eat a lot more of the chicken than him. Lucky me, it was tasty!
We finished the meal with coffee, which is served with full ceremony. Eritreans take their coffee very seriously, and it comes in a special earthenware pot called a jebena, which has straw on top to keep the coffee grounds inside. The jebena arrived at the table with an incense holder that was smoking dramatically, and we waited for it to cool down a little before our waiter poured the coffee. This incense accompanies the coffee, adding scents like frankincense to the experience of the drink. See, you thought only the Ferran Adriàs of this world brought you things to smell with your food, but East Africans have been doing this for centuries! It also came with a giant bowl of popcorn, which we sadly made very little impact on since we’d been stuffing ourselves so excessively.
Asmara compared well with some of my other favourite restaurants from this part of the world. Portions might have been a little smaller than in the US, but that’s pretty standard, and the food itself was very good, especially the red lentils and the lamb zigni.
Asmara, 386 Coldharbour Lane, London SW9 8LF