Eating Your Way Through Addis Ababa
By Yayne Hailu
A foodie at heart, when I travel, an important part of my experience comes through my taste buds. I am a strong believer that truly exploring a place means delving into its history, living the lives of its people, and taking part in the daily culture. I found that there is no better way to do this than through food. Food is not only a means of survival, it is a creative expression, a history book of where one comes from, and an appreciation of love, family, and friends. When I traveled back to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last spring, I had one mission, and one mission only: to be a food tourist in my own hometown. I wanted to get to know Addis and experience what was really going on in the city. With a place that boasts a variety of restaurants, hotel eateries, cafes, and bars, this was not too hard to do. Going off of recommendations from friends, visiting popular dining destinations, and even venturing out on my own, I took a self-guided tour of this old town, one delicious morsel at a time.
If you have ever been to Addis, you have most likely heard of Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant. Now, I m no fan of tourist traps, but I m very glad I gave this place a chance. Once I got over the gaggle of tourists, I realized that this is definitely the right place to get your feet wet, as the food was exquisite and the ambiance was even better. I ordered the kitfo, a beef tartar rubbed with spiced butter, and the gomen, collared greens in a blend of spices. The injera, a pancake-like bread, came marbled with dark and light pieces (something you rarely see) and even the tej, a honey wine, is served in the traditional style, in a flask that looks somewhat like a chemistry beaker. The best part was that the restaurant also doubles as performance hall so I got to enjoy my fare with a lively troop of dancers and musicians showcasing different cultural dances.
In my search to tackle other iconic landmarks, one lazy afternoon, I found myself in front of one of the oldest and most famous café-bakeries in the history of Addis, Enrico’s. Located in the historically Italian neighborhood of Piassa, the establishment has been around for over 50 years. The interior is plain and unassuming in an old-fashioned kind of way, a few indoor and outdoor chairs and tables and nothing else. But like most amazing eateries, there is no need for decorations when the food is that good. To say that Enrico’s pastries are the stuff of legends is no exaggeration. This is the place our parents and grand-parents used to tell us about. And rightfully so because the Millifoni, a French pastry also known as Mille Feuille, and the Boxegna, a cream puff cake filled with custard, are some of the most sought-after sweets in the city, even today. The wait to get your hands on one of these is at least 15 – 20 minutes. And wait I did. But the satisfaction of finally tasting these legendary (and delicious) cakes was worth it. To say that I have had an Enrico cake is to say I have been part of history.
On a night out with friends, I was introduced to a fairly new restaurant- bar called Mama’s Kitchen in the Bole neighborhood. I learned early on in my food tour that just because I’m in Ethiopia, I shouldn’t limit myself to only traditional cuisine, so I was eager to see what the food was like. The. Food. Was. Incredible. With different selections from traditional Ethiopian to Western dishes, we had a variety of pastas, salads, and chicken plates for the table that left our stomachs stuffed and happy. The classy but cozy all- wood interior to the dining area made me feel like I was really having dinner in someone’s home which made the experience that much better. The whole time, we were lavished with great customer service and the manager even gave us a personal tour of the bar, beer garden, and V.I.P. lounge area. A few weeks later, I went back for a networking event after hours to find this place turned into a live jazz lounge with a full bar crowd and dancing. It seemed to me that this is the hot new place people go to for great food and drinks, and a night out, understandably so!
A few days before I left Addis, I met a fellow Ethio-American who was in town from DC. We chatted about places to go and decided to check out a restaurant he had heard of in the notorious Chechnya neighborhood (think Red light district). Bait Al Mandi is a former residential house-turned restaurant, a concept that is very common in Addis. Call it gastro- premonition but when I walked into the three-story Yemeni restaurant, I knew I was in for an experience. Tall and grandiose, the place offers eight indoor and outdoor dining rooms, each fashioned after a Middle Eastern country and accompanying traditional décor. There was everything from an Egyptian room with pharaohs and pyramids to a Moroccan room where cushions and pillows decorated the area and guests dined on the floor. However, the best room of all was the Saudi Arabian room because of its beautiful hanging lanterns and breath-taking view of Addis. Here we settled and ordered a plate of hummus and Mofo , lamb marinated in Arabian herbs and slow cooked. We were served a delicious citrusy vegetable broth soup that comes with all dishes and the hummus appetizer was probably the best hummus I have ever had in my life. The Mofo was equally good and plenty with enough tender spicy lamb for both of us to take home. At the end of the feast, we were served a complimentary desert of fruits, just the right touch for a heavy meal. This quickly became one of my most favorite spots to dine in Addis and I highly recommend it to everyone.
My 5 week edible tour of Addis took me by surprise as I discovered both things about the city and myself I had never known. Describing all the beautiful places, delicious food, amazing people, and fun times I experienced, couldn’t be done in one sitting. For all those who want to experience Addis, belly first, stay tuned!
Yayne is a digital journalist and a global health consultant based in New York City. A true nomad at heart, she has lived everywhere from Côte d'Ivoire to Brazil, from Oregon to Addis Ababa. When she's not traveling and experiencing life through her passport, she is passionately merging her creativity with social good.