Habesha: A culinary adventure

TASTY: One of the dishes served up, tapas-style, at the Ethiopian restaurant Habesha.  Picture: Ryan Osland
TASTY: One of the dishes served up, tapas-style, at the Ethiopian restaurant Habesha. Picture: Ryan Osland

What: Habesha. 

Where: 181 King Street, Newcastle. (02) 4929 1876.

Owners: Darrell and Lidya Stapleton.

Drinks: BYO alcohol ($4pp wine corkage/$2pp beer), soft drinks, bottled still/sparkling water, orange and apple juice, Ethiopian tea and coffee. 

Hours: Lunch: Tues-Sat, 11am-2pm; Dinner: Tues-Sat, 5pm-11pm.

Vegetarian: Yes.

Bottom line: All entrees $8, mains $14-$18, drinks $3-$4 (BYO alcohol, $4 corkage). 

Wheelchair access: Yes.

Do try: Vegetable sambusa and miser wot.

Suggested wine match: Something sweet and spicy. Try De Bortoli La Boheme Act Four Syrah Gamay

THE Ethiopian people refer to themselves as "Habesha" ("huh-besh-a"), an ancient word that stems from a population group inhabiting the Horn of Africa. The word itself is considered to have no agreed true meaning or definition because it doesn't denote a particular ethnicity, country, language or religion.

Novocastrians, however, will come to know Habesha as meaning delicious food.

Located on King Street and squeezed in between the Tower Cinemas and Asa Don, Habesha restaurant is a welcome addition to Newcastle's burgeoning foodie culture, offering a curious taste of antiquity and tradition, inspired by the most populous land-locked country in the world.

The space is small and intimate. The exposed brick walls are decorated with traditional-looking mats, which feature geometric African patterns and hieroglyphs that hang between framed pictures depicting African pastoral scenes and religious motifs. Soft browns and off-white colour tones spread across the walls and ceiling and offer a subtle clue to the type of food and fare that is served from Habesha's hidden kitchen, located up the back of the restaurant.

My dining associate and I decided to order a wide spread of food off the menu because neither of us had experienced Ethiopian food before. Luckily, the menu's opening stanzas provide you with a sort of 101 introduction to Ethiopian food.

Indeed, the correct way to eat Ethiopian food is with your hands and, as such, no cutlery is provided, unless requested. So, before your meal is served, a silver hand basin, a jug of warm water and some soap are brought to your table for you to wash your hands in, and then a small hand towel with which to dry them.

For entree, we ordered a portion of vegetable sambusa, which is a crispy, triangular pastry filled with a mixture of braised green peas, potato, carrot, coriander, spring onions, garlic and Ethiopian spices. As our teeth pierced through the crunchy-shelled parcels, the pastry flaked and gave way to the soft and savoury flavours of the vegetable centre. The accompanying dipping sauce added a little chilli kick to the subtle spices inside.

Mains quickly followed our sambusa, and were all served at the same time, similar to a Spanish tapas. All mains are served with injera, a type of fermented flatbread that's made from an ancient fine grain known as teff. Injera is served, rolled up, in a basket and looks similar to a crepe. It has a subtle flavour all of its own, which is slightly tangy, almost sour. The idea is to tear off a piece of injera and load it up with whatever you've ordered. In this instance, we ordered the ye beg alicha (lamb), the asa gulash (fish) and miser wot (red lentils).

The ye beg alicha looked and tasted similar to a traditional stew, or casserole. It is made from braised marinated lamb on the bone, which had been simmered with turmeric, garlic, onion, green chillies, ginger, carrots and potatoes. The lamb was a little chewy, while the flavours it sat in were simple and subtle, wholly comforting, but not really all that exciting. I can imagine this dish to be better suited to the wintertime, when heavy comfort is required.

Next up was the asa gulash, which, according to the menu, is prepared using braised and marinated Nile perch fillets, gently cooked in a blend of turmeric, garlic, onion, tomato, capsicum, fresh green chillies and rosemary. This dish was not a favourite. The sauce the fish sat in, however, was beautiful. Each element was gently balanced, as if finely tuned, while the vegies softly snapped between my teeth.

Rounding out our trio of Ethiopian dishes was the miser wot. According to Habesha's menu, "Wot is the traditional dish of Ethiopia . . . [and the] primary ingredient that characterises every wot is berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend made from a mix of herbs and spices". By far, the tastiest and most interesting dish of the night, the miser wot consists of braised split red lentils cooked in a tomato, onion, ginger and garlic sauce, and finished in mild Ethiopian clarified butter - similar to ghee. When seasoned with spices, the Ethiopian version gives a great depth of flavour to the dish it's used in. In this instance, the lentils brought the injera to life, perfectly complementing the tangy taste of the sourdough flatbread with its spicy sweetness. The lentils were so soft that they almost melted in my mouth.

Overall, the meal at Habesha was something of a culinary adventure. Just about every dish was themed with subtle and gentle flavours, a ripple of sweetness and an undertow of spice. The food was nourishing and sat heavy in the stomach, even after the long walk home!

I look forward to returning when the air's a little colder, with a jumper and a group of friends, so that we can taste and share many more of these curious dishes.