One of my favourite ever treats when I was little was to go to the Chinese restaurant with my mum.
Every single visit, for years, I would order the same thing: plain steamed rice, which I would eat with soy sauce, and a Sprite lemonade. For dessert, coconut ice cream served in half a coconut shell. Every. Single. Time.
And I loved it. I begged for a visit to the Chinese restaurant. To eat steamed rice and drink a lemonade.
Thankfully, I learnt to branch out a little…Chow mein became a go-to menu option for a while, but I can’t say I have ever come across a vegan chow mein. Satay was my favourite thing for a while and, well, it still is, but I’m far too impatient to ever marinade anything (and also I would end up just eating the marinade with a spoon, which I know not to be as good an idea as it sounds).
Japanese food was probably the first cuisine I became utterly fixated upon. I loved the freshness, the variety of textures from the hyper-crunchy to the otherworldly gloopy, the saltiness and umami flavours, the dainty and delicate presentation. Another bonus was that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make it myself, so it was a very attractive dinner option.
I never pass up the chance to have a wakame salad as a starter, and a large sushi platter is a thing of beauty. I loved Zen in Southampton, with its contemporary yet warm décor, but I visited when I first started discovering Japanese food and thought sushi was the only thing worth eating, so can’t really comment on much of the menu. In Luxembourg, I have had some great meals at Aka, including strawberry-filled sushi.
Knowing how much I enjoyed Japanese food, Ben surprised me with a visit to Itadaki Zen for my birthday a couple of years ago. As much as I loved being able to pick out anything that sounded good on the menu without double- and triple-checking for hidden egg or fishy ingredients, and as good as the food itself was, the atmosphere just wasn’t inviting enough for me to go out of my way to go back.
Apart from the fact that Ben isn’t a huge fan of Japanese cuisine, the truth is that most of the time I’m just not knowledgeable enough to be confident in what I am ordering. So although I always enjoy the food, I never enter a Japanese restaurant bubbling with anticipation for the best meal ever, nor are interactions with staff over hidden ingredients ever comfortable.
At the total opposite end of the spectrum is undoubtedly my favourite cuisine these days. I know I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with Ethiopian cuisine in the last few years, and I don’t know what has recently encouraged such a surge in popularity, but I wish the wave would wash over South West London! My go-to used to be Zeret Kitchen in South East London (near Oval). The staff were warm and welcoming, the vibe laid-back, the food plentiful and delicious and ridiculously cheap.
When I moved back out West, making the journey to Oval was less feasible, particularly given that the restaurant was about a 15-20min walk from the station, through mainly residential streets that at best make the journey a drag and, at worst, feel pretty unwelcoming on a drizzly evening.
But my cravings for Ethiopian food, the laid-back dining atmosphere, and the ritualistic quality of sharing a meal and eating with your hands, didn’t begin to fade with time. So I got online, and the search took me back to my first London home, when the good fortune of living around the corner from an excellent Eritrean restaurant was wasted on me. Oh, it’s only listed as #1 on Yelp, so I’m totally not kicking myself for never visiting in the 18 months I lived a two-minute walk away.
You might have noticed I’ve subtly shifted from Ethiopian to Eritrean in my discussion. I’d love to pretend to be an expert, but I’m not, so as soon as I realised I wasn’t entirely sure of the difference myself, I googled it and thankfully I wasn’t the only one. In fact, Mosob themselves answer the question:
“There are only minor differences between Eritrean and Ethiopian food, and it is the inclusion of tomatoes in Eritrean stews; possibly the Italian influence since Eritrea was an Italian colony.”
We have only made it to Mosob twice since we discovered it a year ago, although I probably whinge about wanting to go back about once a week. If you’ve enjoyed Ethiopian and/or Eritrean food before, you’ll already know all this, but if you haven’t you might be wondering what makes it so special?
Part of it is the communal dining experience, not just ordering shared dishes as in many cuisines but actually eating off a shared platter boasting a variety of colours and textures and flavours.
It’s also the fun and heightened sensorial experience of eating with your hands. In my opinion, this would be great first date food: if my date was squeamish about eating with their hands or sharing their food, I’d certainly be asking myself some questions about our compatibility.
Above all, of course, it’s the flavours and textures. The defining element is injera, a spongy sourdough crêpe-like flatbread with a distinctive sour taste – traditionally it is made with teff flour which gives the bread a dark greyish appearance, but due to lack of availability it is often made with other grains (Mosob use a blend of wheat and corn) – but the flavours of the stews are unlike anything I’ve tasted in any other cuisine. They are rich and complex, steaming hot and comforting.
I love all of the stews, but the creamy red lentil timtimo (the smooth orange dollops shown at the top and bottom of the photo) is one of the reasons I keep going back. I am always torn between making my last bite a scoop of timtimo or of the umami-rich potato selsi (the deep reddish-brown stew shown left and right)… The thought of them is making my mouth water even now!
An added bonus is the truly incredible customer service I have experienced at both Zeret and Mosob, with waiting staff only too eager to tell us a little bit about their restaurant – both family-run businesses – and to advise us on the best selection of vegan dishes. Indeed, animal-free dining is something the cuisine is particularly suited to thanks to the presence of Coptic Christians who fast for almost two thirds of the year, which generally means observing a vegan diet.
Although I have enjoyed Ethiopian food at other locations where I haven’t been able to share and eat from a platter lined with injera to soak up all the juices, it really does diminish the experience considerably.
Combining bewitching flavours, tantalising textures, and stellar vegan-friendly customer service in a setting geared towards sharing and community, enjoying Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine is about so much more than the food – but the food is definitely what I go back for!