In Ethiopia, coffee isn’t a mere beverage but a celebration, and much like chai in India, it is a community activity. But as opposed to a refreshment, Ethiopians have their coffee along with, and often, after meals, too. But we rarely look beyond the coffee to explore Ethiopia’s food, which has parallels with our own food. We discovered this, to our surprise, at a tiny new Ethiopian cafe in Juhu. Less than two months old, Maharsh is an enterprise of Mahendra Damani, who moved from Mumbai to Ethiopia half a century ago. A successful businessman, he would often visit his home city but crave the Ethiopian flavours. This is what led him to open the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant, which is now managed by his daughter Charmi and is located on Juhu Tara Road.
Since there has been little or no exposure to the Ethiopian cuisine, nearly everything on the menu sounds alien, that is, until it arrives on the table. The staff is helpful and amply trained to take the guests through the menu. The restaurant serves only vegetarian dishes, which is a bummer because Ethiopia has a rich meat culture.
Certain items in the cuisine are staples, such as the sambusa (Rs 325), which is, pretty much, the Ethiopian version of our samosa. However, the Ethiopians have varieties in sambusa stuffing, including lentils and cheese-and-corn. At Maharsh, they were served with mint chutney and a cheesy dip akin to the thousand island dressing. The dips were nothing exceptional but the sambusas tasted fresh. The stuffing was made of boiled black lentils sauteed in mild spices.
Lentils, in fact, form a crucial part of the Ethiopian cuisine, especially at Maharsh since they don’t serve meat. In the platter-for-two (Rs 950) we ordered — Ethiopians eat their meals from communal platters — four of the six dishes were lentil-based. There was Alicha Missir Wot, a brown lentil cooked in turmeric, onion and garlic; Shiro Wot or powdered peas cooked in onions and spices; Kay Missir Wot, a spicy, flavourful preparation of red lentils; and Yemessir Wot, which is a mixed-lentil version of Kay Missir with fewer spices. The platter also had Mushroom Tibs (a sauteed mushroom preparation) and Fasolia (crispy sauteed mixed vegetables). A lot of the preparations find parallels in Indian cuisine but the milder Ethiopian spices make all the difference — they don’t overpower flavours of the ingredients.
The base of the platter is the foundation of the Ethiopian platter. Called injera, it is a crepe made using fermented batter. The Ethiopians use the teff grain for it, which is unavailable in India, so Maharash replaces it with a mix of local grains. The slightly tangy crepe goes well with the robust flavours of the food, but more importantly, the coffee, without which any Ethiopian meal is incomplete.
At Maharash, the platters come with brewed coffee, perfect to wash down the meal and perhaps, even the puff pastry dessert (Rs 350) with the Nutella and cheese stuffing. The highlight of a meal, however, are the vibrant Ethiopian music videos that play on a screen.