The Oldest Christian Vegan Feast!?
Ethiopia – a country familiar and yet foreign. On one hand, the name is certainly familiar and even famous, owing to the recent recognition of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe as one of the premier single origin coffee beans in the world; on the other hand, the name is infamous for the unfortunate (but not entirely unavoidable) famine in the 1980s. Yet, the country itself remains far and foreign since except for the occasional printed letters or glanced words, little attention is paid to its history, people or culture. From a distance of 10,000 km, Ethiopia lies beyond the horizon somewhere in the vast and mysterious land called Africa…and even there, not the exactly where on the map (Hint: It is land-locked). As too often is the case such ignorance, misconception and preconception – or outright prejudice – run rampant and cloud our perception of the nation consciously (unfortunate but amendable) and subconsciously (unfortunate and incurable). Hence, when someone thoughtlessly let it drop that “Oh, they don’t eat vegetables…only on certain days, vegetables are available,” one may be tempted to take such words as the truth.
If that were true, then this “vegan Ethiopian food” boldly and broadly proclaimed by Andu Café in Dalston, could not possibly be authentic, could it?
When it comes to food, never, ever take someone else’s statement without a grain (ore more likely, a whole bottle of) salt, until one has tried, tested and, most importantly tasted, and further chewed through and chewed over, then finally it can be swallowed and digested. As it turned out, “no vegetables in Ethiopia” could not be further from the truth because Andu Café has proved this misguided statement to be delightfully and deliciously wrong.
The vegetable platter is called “Yetsom Beyaynetu,” and it follows one of the world’s oldest vegan tradition as it is derived from the belief of the Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia, which is, in fact, one of the most ancient and mystic Christian beliefs, existing long before it became the state religion in early 4th century. As is in the Coptic tradition, there are many fasting days where no animal product or byproduct may be consumed, which makes the food almost vegan (sometimes fish is permitted), and in the case of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church mandates 250 days of fasting – for the monks and priests (now you can let out that breath) and 180 days for the lay people (or perhaps not so fast). Most notably, no food can be taken before noon on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the 40-days prior to Nativity; furthermore, the long-awaited meal must not contain any meat, fish, dairy or eggs. Fasting is prescribed, needlessly to say, so that the mind and body may be purified of the constant carnal (carnal – carne – meat) thoughts. Thus, came about the vegan fare in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, pure food does not mean poor or meagre because, as a matter of fact, the Ethiopian vegan fasting food is so full of flavors, colors, textures and pleasure that it is nothing but a fasting “feast” for the body and soul.
Traditionally, Ethiopian food is served directly on a thin crepe called “injera” – which is made of fermented teff batter and cooked on a round pan. Injera is spongy with bubbles due to the fermentation, and, as if purposely designed, the air holes are perfectly suited to soak up the various vegetable sauces. If you have heard of injera, then you have most likely heard that the taste is sour, and you have heard it correct. Acidity develops in the process of fermenting the teff – making it more digestible – and produces an aromatic sourness, quite similar to a good and hearty German rye bread. Therefore, if you love the robust roggenbrot or pumpernickel, the signature sourness should pose no problem. Even those who would normally shy away from strong European bread should give it a try because the acidity complements the vegetables and beans so well that it becomes a part of the seasoning. If that is not convicting enough, then there is the trump card: teff is claimed to be one of those superfoods that is full of fiber, mineral and protein and, serendipitously, it is also gluten-free. In any case, Andu Café’s injera is so fragrant and flavorful – sour, salty and savory – that it is as enjoyable by itself as it is with the multiple “side” dishes.
“Side” dishes they may be called, and at Andu Café, they are served on the side, instead of on the injera directly as customarily done – which is in fact preferable as the injera does soak up the juice and becomes soggy and hence quite maddening to pick up with fingers (yes, you eat with your fingers). Regardless of whatever they are called or wherever they are served, the vegetables and legumes at Andu Café’s medley of vegetable dishes definitely takes the center stage.
“Fesolia” of green beans and carrots is wholesome and healthy. Adequately cooked and minimally seasoned, the texture and taste of the long beans and carrots shine on their own, while the cabbage and potato cannot get more comforting than in the mild and sweet “tikil gomen.”
The other “gomen” – spinach – is simply sautéed with crunchy diced onions. Although neither greasy nor oily by any means, that touch of oil magically smooths out the astringency of Popeye’s favorite leafy greens.
On the other hand, the fiery kick in the “yemisir wot” – due to the national favorite Berbere spices – brings the “Yetsom Beyaynetu” to a whole new level. Saltiest and spiciest of the various stews and sauces, the spicy lentil not only provides a contrast and an accent to the beautiful palette, but also proves to be a formidable accompaniment to injera.
To appease the heat comes the delicate, velvety “shiro wat.” Uniquely made of chickpea flour (also known as besan), the texture is simultaneously creamy and gooey, and the flavor is sweet and tangy with the tomato.
Besides the yemisir wot and shiro wat, there is another legume (vegans needs to take their protein, too) dish called “ater kik.” This bean stew is made of yellow split peas, with a slight crunchiness left to play on the teeth. Simply flavored, the yellow split peas are nutty and sweet like kernels of corn.
As the palate opens, so does the mind. Once the physical hunger is satiated, the intellect starts to wander and wonder – what kind of land, people and history have caused the birth of this unexpected vegan cuisine? Engulfed in a smoky aroma of roasting coffee beans, the thoughts travel far and fast, flying over borders and time. Gazing around the walls of Andu Café, the eyes catch sight of the Ethiopian flag – strips of green, yellow and red. Why, that looks exactly like what has been on the platter!
Although the word “vegan” is new (invented by Donald Watson in 1944), the idea of a “vegan” diet is not. Various forms of Christianity have adhered to a plant-based diet throughout the ages. The Carnival – as opposed to the modern interpretation of dancing and dressing up (or down as it is more likely) – it was meant originally to consume meat (“carne”) before the fasting began for Lent.
Inspired by Ethiopia (and the former Ethiopian emperor), another religion and its associated vegan cuisine were born in Jamaica – Rastafarianism and Ital food, which not only refrains from consumption of animals, but also of any processed food, including caffeine and alcohol.
Once back in the hotel, who was asking for a good vegetarian restaurant at the concierge, but a man with a Rasta cap and dreadlocks?
Now, life has come full circle.
Address: 528 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AH, United Kingdom
Telephone: 020 7254 1780
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday 12pm – 10pm