Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
For a menu that has only 21 items, it’s hard to ignore the final choice at Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant in North Burnaby.
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony, called a buna bejebena, is advertised as “an integral part of Ethiopian social and cultural life”.
Owner Mehiret Berhe has lived in Canada for two decades but the coffee ceremony takes her back to her homeland. In fact, the ceremony is one of the most important gatherings for Ethiopian families.
Mehiret Berhe, of Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant in Burnaby holds the Lalibela Combination Plate. It includes various vegetarian and meat servings set on ‘Enjera’, Ethiopian bread.
“It’s a chance for your friends and family to talk about what’s going on in [everybody's] lives,” said Berhe, as she caught up with her sister, Samer, who recently came to Canada with her three-year-old daughter Bethe. “It’s a beautiful ceremony that I want to share with [people in] Canada.”
You have to place your order for the coffee ceremony ($15) before you order dinner because Berhe has to roast the green coffee beans in the kitchen beforehand. Midway through your meal, Berhe will bring the smoking pan of beans to your table, heightening the anticipation of the coffee goodness to come.
On to our meals, which are served in the traditional Ethiopian style. You order your meats or vegetables and you scoop it up with Injera flatbread, a spongy, crepe-like bread made from teff, a tiny, round grain indigenous to Ethiopia.
For our mains, we went with the Kost, a vegetarian dish ($7.50), the beef Yedinich Wot Bessega ($11), the chicken Ye Dror Tibs ($13) and the meat sampler plate ($13.50), which featured lamb, beef and chicken.
The sampler plate comes on a large pan of injera — think of a pizza before all the sauces and toppings are put on — and that means you have to get eating quickly or else the oil from your meats completely saturates the injera.
We found the chicken to be the best item of the sampler plate, simply because it comes with sautéed red onions, fresh garlic, ginger, herbs and boiled eggs. It’s a mix you probably wouldn’t try at home but Berhe’s handiwork is very tasty.
The Kosta features fresh spinach and spices — a treat for my guest from Whitehorse, where Ethiopian food is about as accessible as, well, a trip to Ethiopia. The Bessega advertises itself as lean, tender beef served with a hearty gumbo of potatoes, and while the potatoes were indeed hearty, the beef wasn’t as lean as I expected.
The Ye Dror Tibs were some of the best chicken breast cubes I’ve had in quite some time. Berhe uses a special — and secret — mix of herbs and spices to give the chicken breast a flavour I can still taste days after the meal. The chicken was lean and tender without being dry and probably worked the best with the injera.
The four of us agreed that beef may be a bit too oily for injera and the lamb can usually stand on its own — Berhe disagrees, saying the lamb is her favourite dish on the menu — making chicken probably the best choice for neophytes to this type of East African cuisine.
Our coffee now awaited us and Berhe poured our servings from a clay coffee pot into small cups like Chinese dim sum tea cups. My first serving, without any sugar or cream, was unbelievably mellow, unlike anything I’d drunk before. Adding sugar for my second serving made it taste like an espresso, but Berhe had one more surprise in store for me.
“We add salt when we drink it,” she said.
My eyebrows arched, wondering if she had stumbled on that revelation because a prankster had switched her sugar and salt dispensers.
When I tried the “salty coffee”, it was probably the best of my three samples, as the salt takes away any bitterness from the coffee beans.
“We opened on April 28 last year and business has grown steadily,” she said, adding that she was drawn to Burnaby because of the lower rents. She had looked at spots in Vancouver, specifically Commercial Drive.
She also named her restaurant after Lalibela, one of the most famous places in Ethiopia because of its rock-hewn churches carved out of living rock in the 12th century.
“People should give us a try,” she said. “Ethiopian food is about people getting together.” And believe me, once you try the coffee, you’ll find it hard to go back to Starbucks.