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Burning incense keeps evil spirits at bay at Little Fontana

Spicy vegetarian platter with injera.

ERITREA and Ethiopia resolved to end decades of conflict when they signed a declaration of peace and friendship on 9 July this year, boosting the economy in the Horn of Africa and easing the shortage of foreign exchange. Our elections were held on 30 July, but the results have not created sweetness and light, and Zimbos are once again in limbo, awaiting resolution. But chikuru kufema, and towards mid-day last Sunday, my thoughts turned first to lunch and then, topically, to Ethiopian cuisine.

Little Fontana, a restaurant with ‘authentic Ethiopian taste’, is located in the suburb of Kensington, in what was formerly a modest family residence, near the corner of Cork Road and Prince Edward Street. When George and I arrived at 1 pm, there was only a handful of patrons having lunch. We chose to sit outside in the garden, to enjoy the last of the winter sunshine, and before long Martin, the lone waiter, took our order for drinks.

Now, as anyone who eats out regularly will admit, it’s seldom that an experience can be described as totally awful, or absolutely amazing. Most are often a combination of both. On the positive side, our waiter was efficient, polite and helpful. After explaining that a typical Ethiopian buffet would not be laid out, as there weren’t many guests, he assured us that we would enjoy our meal. Although disappointed not to enjoy the visual delights of a sumptuous Ethiopian buffet, we murmured our assent, and gave an order for drinks.

Little Fontana offers a selection of well-priced cocktails, spirits, wines and fruit juices. Having initially planned on getting plastered to avoid dwelling on the state of the nation, I opted for austerity, and we both ordered mango juice and mineral water. These were served in tall glasses, on a spotless white tray cloth, with a small ice bucket and tongs. A few minutes later Martin was back, with side plates, freshly-baked bread rolls, real butter and a crisp garden salad of cucumber, red pepper, thinly-sliced onion and tomato. The perfect starter for the rich meal to follow.

Traditionally, Ethiopians use the right hand to eat, so silver bowls with slices of lemon, and white towels, were brought to wash and dry our hands.

Injera, Ethiopia’s staple food, is an unusual-tasting but delicious spongy, sourdough flatbread. It’s placed on a large tray, overlapping edges folded in, and spoonfuls of lentils, beans, meat,vegetables and sauces are piled on top. George’s meat platter ($15) arrived with helpings of fragrant stews. Key wat, a beef stew flavoured with red berbere seasoning made from coriander, green cardomom, cumin, red chilli peppers, allspice, cloves, fenugreek and black pepper, looked as good as the doro wat, a combination of chicken, butter, eggs and onions, in addition to the ubiquitous berbere seasoning. There was also a lamb wat, and a variety of pulses and vegetables.

Vegetarians can eat very well, as many Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians and refrain from eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, enjoying instead a wide variety of delicious lentils, pulses, beans, grains and fresh vegetables. My vegetarian platter ($12) came with helpings of atkilt wat (carrots, cauliflower and beans), kik alicha (split peas in turmeric sauce), shiro (ground chickpeas simmered in berbere sauce), mesir (lentils) and gomen, an addictive dish of spinach or kale prepared with spices, lemon juice, fresh ginger and salt.

Dessert was deconstructed tiramisu, an Ethiopian version of a classic Italian dessert. Briefly occupied between 1936 and 1941 by Italy, Ethiopia retains some Italian influence in its cuisine. Pasta al sugo e berbere and lasagne are still popular dishes in addition to tiramisu and Italian gelato.

The aroma of roasted coffee beans drifted on the air as Mrs Mebrat Addis, the co-owner and cook at Little Fontana, prepared coffee to be poured into a Jebena (traditional clay coffee pot). The coffee was served on a tray, with Ethiopian ceramic cups. A small, decorated container filled with burning incense to keep evil spirits at bay, stood alongside the Jebena.

The coffee was slightly too bitter and lacking in flavour for my taste, but I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere at Little Fontana, the service, and above all, the injera and vegetarian platter.

We walked through the garden as we left, passing by a mango tree laden with flowers. I wondered whether peace would be with us by the time they bore fruit. –  A Matter of Taste with Charlotte Malakoff

Little Fontana
74 Cork Road
Avondale, Harare.
Open Monday – Sunday
Mobile: 263 783 574 804 (Ephraim for reservations)

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