Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Injera in Holy Lalibela

Injera forms the base for seg wat, a spicy meat stew that traditionally uses beri-beri, a very hot Ethiopian chili pepper

Dubbed “Africa’s Petra” for its astonishing rock-hewn churches, Lalibela has drawn Western visitors since the 16th century. It is hidden high in the Ethiopian highlands, and the journey is long and arduous for the thousands of pilgrims who travel there on foot. Many seek replenishment in its famous, pancake-like flatbread, injera, topped by a hot, steaming, and revitalizing stew.

Cradle of the Zagwe dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, Lalibela was once the country’s capital and the home of kings. According to local tradition, the town’s ruler and namesake, King Lalibela, was briefly forced into exile to Jerusalem by his evil, usurping brother. Amazed by the churches there, Lalibela vowed to build a holy city on African soil upon his return to his homeland.
Lalibela’s churches are exceptional for three main reasons: their artistic refinement, their sophisticated construction (many are not just carved into the rock, but freed entirely from it), and their number – so many are found within such a small area. For the visitor, Lalibela’s unique appeal also lies in its timeless continuity. Monks and deacons, traditionally robed, glide along the candlelit passageways and tunnels that connect the medieval churches, and the sound of chanting still rises from the hidden crypts and grottoes. The deep, cool recesses of the extraordinary church interiors are filled with the heady fragrance of incense and burning beeswax candles.
The taverns and restaurants of Lalibela have also been serving the pilgrims for centuries. They offer up an often quite sophisticated and eclectic cuisine that includes piquant meat wats (stews) and mild, smooth curries of vegetables and beans. Underpinning all – literally – is the country’s staple, injera, a kind of large, round flatbread upon which the cooks heap one or more meat and vegetable dishes. Used as a base and also as a tool (small pieces are torn off with the right hand and used to pick at the dishes), injera famously serves as foodstuff, plate, and cutlery.
Injera is traditionally made from the flour of teff, a small-grained indigenous Ethiopian cereal that is found throughout the Ethiopian highlands. This distinguishes the higher-quality injera, which is lighter, smoother, thinner, and springier than non-teff varieties. After a day’s exploration of Lalibela’s wondrous churches, there’s no better way to end the day than by tucking in to injera and a large, communal plate of steaming, slightly spicy stew with some newfound friends. Ethiopians believe that sharing a meal in this way cements a friendship forever.

Fresh produce, seafood, and curios can be found in the covered Central Market

The chicken takes its color and heat  from the small but feisty piri-piri pepper, also known as the bird’s-eye chili or African red devil

The Best Places to Eat Injera

Blue Lal Hotel Restaurant
Although Lalibela and its extraordinary churches are becoming better known and visitor numbers are increasing, the range and quality of the town’s restaurants (and hotels) remain rather limited. One of the better options for sampling Ethiopian food is the Blue Lal Hotel Restaurant.
Designed like a tukul (traditional Ethiopian hut), complete with freshly cut grass strewn on the floor and multicolored mesobs (traditional, mushroom-shaped dining tables woven like baskets) dotting the dining floor, the Blue Lal Restaurant serves fresh, authentic, and good-quality Ethiopian dishes, including a well-prepared injera, at excellent prices. Try the unctuous doro wat: chicken drumsticks or wings accompanied by hard- boiled egg served in a hot sauce of butter, onion, and cardamom and a good sprinkling of berbere (a spice mixture of up to 16 ingredients, including the fiery beri-beri). If you don’t fancy stew, try kitfo, minced beef or lamb traditionally served warm but not cooked – like a form of steak tartare – and flavored with the even hotter mitmita spice mixture.
Downtown Lalibela; +251 3 3336 0380
Also in Lalibela
The Seven Olives Hotel (+251 3 3336 0020; inexpensive) is furnished with Ethiopian arts and crafts and offers the classic range of injera-plus-wats, as well as injera and ye som megeb (vegetarian dishes traditionally served on Friday, the day of fasting). If you’re eager to taste multiple Ethiopian dishes, request the beyanatu – you’ll receive small portions of different meat and vegetable dishes.
Also in Ethiopia
Habesha Restaurant (+251 3 3351 8358; moderate) in Addis-Ababa is traditionally decorated and known for its good-quality, more eclectic menu, including injera-accompanied dishes such as dulet (minced tripe, liver, and beef fried in butter, onions, chili pepper, and cardamom) and kwanta (strips of beef rubbed in chili pepper, butter, salt, and berbere). In the evening, there’s live Ethiopian music or dancing.
Around the World
London has a sizable Ethiopian community and Wabe Shebele Restaurant (+44 20 7378 9009; moderate) serves authentic Ethiopian food in a traditionally decorated dining room.
Regulars include gored gored (warmed cubes of raw beef served with spiced Ethiopian butter) and goden tibs (lamb ribs sautéed with berbere and rosemary). On weekends, there is traditional Ethiopian dancing.
What to Drink in Lalibela
Once the drink of Ethiopian emperors and kings, tej – a kind of mead – is now the popular local tipple. Made from locally produced honey and an Ethiopian shrub called gesho, it is found today in the tej beats (a kind of Ethiopian equivalent of pubs) in most Ethiopian towns, as well as in higher-end restaurants. Served in delightful little flasks known as birille, tej comes in varying degrees of sweetness. Ask for derek if you want it dry and strong (the drier it is, the more alcoholic the content), mahakalenya for medium-sweet, and laslasa or bers for a sweeter and less alcoholic version. Local men congregate at tej beats to gossip, cogitate, and commiserate.
As in Western pubs, most men tend to gather during a weekend afternoon, while women traditionally drink tej from glasses during market days as they work and exchange news.

All Fired Up in Maputo Mozambique

 Lapped by the balmy Indian Ocean, Maputo is probably the most characterful capital city in sub-equatorial Africa. A seaside port, its wide palm- and jacaranda-shaded avenidas are flanked by cozy street cafés and an oddly cohesive cocktail of architectural styles. The city possesses an engaging Afro-Mediterranean mood epitomized by the addictive, fiery zip of chicken piri-piri.
Five centuries ago, the desire to secure control of the spice trade inspired Portugal to establish outposts along the east coast of Africa, one of which grew to become the modern Mozambican capital of Maputo. Today, the most notoriously tongue-searing of these spices – the ferocious chili pepper known by the Swahili-derived name piri-piri – forms the cornerstone of Mozambique’s best-known culinary export.
Mozambique’s struggle for independence from Portugal ended as recently as 1974, and the legacy of colonial rule can still be seen in the fascinating architecture of its capital city. Antiquated colonial relics and handsome Art Deco and Bauhaus buildings stand out among bleak Soviet-style apartment blocks, relics of a period of Marxist-oriented government that Left High-rise buildings give way to beachside homes on the outskirts inspired a bitter civil war. And it is the juxtaposition of the city’s contemporary African culture against this time-warped architectural exotica that makes Maputo so compelling. For example, one of Africa’s most bizarrely misplaced buildings – a stately palace built in ornate Portuguese Gothic style that now houses the Natural History Museum – sits just around the corner from the utterly African Barracas de Museu. This unpretentious, vast warren of makeshift stands and bars is inhabited by a bustling cast of guitar-bearing rent-acrooners, beer-swilling mamas, wild-eyed pool hustlers, and after-hours office workers. It is dedicated to the sale and consumption of alcohol and there is no better place to make new friends over a cold Mozambican beer and a sizzling plate of chicken piri-piri.
No other dish is quite so definitely Mozambican as this – spatchcocked chicken, grilled to perfection over hot coals in its mantle of piquant piri-piri sauce. Deep red and viscous, the sauce is dominated by the chili pepper for which it is named, which is finely chopped and soaked in vegetable oil, garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, and coarse salt – and whatever other secret ingredient it is that ensures that, whether you’re ordering at a street stall, a hole-in-the-wall carry-out or an upmarket restaurant, no two versions of this unofficial national dish ever taste exactly the same.
Best Places to Eat Chicken Piri-Piri
Restaurante Costa do Sol
Boasting a prime seafront location 5 miles (8 km) north of downtown, the legendary Costa do Sol is the oldest eatery in Maputo, having operated continuously since the 1940s, and throughout the civil war that drove Mozambique to an economic standstill in the 1980s. Fittingly, this family-run institution has a somewhat time-warped Mediterranean ambience, with its Art Deco facade, wide terrace overlooking a palm-lined beach and gentle rolling breakers, reasonably priced daily specials chalked up on a board, white-starched tablecloths, and famously erratic (but invariably friendly) service. As with most restaurants in Maputo, seafood features heavily on the menu, but the Costa do Sol also arguably serves the city’s finest grilled chicken: marinated in a spicy sauce, sealed and flame-grilled on an open fire and accompanied by a bowl of fiery red sauce whose searing chili pepper base is, like all the best piri-piri, offset by a delicious tang from the addition of preserved lemons. A chilled Sauvignon Blanc from neighboring South Africa provides the perfect accompaniment, though the locally brewed 2M lager might be a safer bet for dousing the fiery aftertaste.
Av. de Marginal; open 11 AM–10:30 PM Sun–Thu, 11 AM–midnight Fri & Sat; +258 21 450 115 Also in Maputo
As might be surmised from the restaurant’s name, the chef at Piri-piri (+258 21 492 379; moderate), an ever-popular eatery in the heart of the upmarket Polana district, isn’t afraid of dousing his grilled chicken in antisocial quantities of delicious piri-piri sauce. Aside from the good food, the terrace here, where Av. 24 de Julho and Av. Julius Nyerere meet, has to be one of the city’s top spots for people-watching.
Also in Mozambique
Tucked away on an anonymous dirt road in Vilankulo, one of Mozambique’s top resort towns, is Varanda (+258 29 382 412; moderate), a family-run restaurant famed for its seafood and superb chicken piri-piri. It overlooks a beach where fishing dhows come to land their catches in the evening.
Around the World
Unsurprisingly, Mozambique’s most famous dish long ago made it across two oceans to its former colonizer, Portugal, where it has become a local specialty at the picturesque village of Guia, in the central Algarve. There are several restaurants to choose from here, but none finer than the veteran Restaurant Ramires (+351 289 561 232; inexpensive), which has been firing up visitors’ taste buds for over 25 years.

A Day in Maputo

Easily and safely explored on foot, central Maputo is a compact grid of shady avenues filled with unexpected architectural curiosities.
MORNING : Start at Praça dos Trabalhadores and Maputo Railway Station, the palatial 1910 creation of Gustave Eiffel. From here, the bar-lined Rua de Bagamoio (once known as the “Street of Trouble” by visiting sailors) leads through the old town to the 18th-century Fortalezada Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the city’s oldest extant building and home to interesting artworks. Take a short ferry ride to rustic Catembe for fabulous views and an inexpensive seafood lunch at the redoubtable Restaurant Diogo on the beach.
AFTERNOON : Take the ferry back and follow Av. Patrice Lumumba uphill to the prestigious Polana District and shady Av. Friedrich Engels for clifftop views over the harbor.
EVENING : Dive into the fantastic Barracas de Museu for a drink or two before or after dinner.
Getting to Lalibela
Maputo is Mozambique’s main port of entry, and the international airport is only 10 minutes from downtown, traffic permitting.
Where to stay in Lalibela
Fatima’s Place (inexpensive) is a popular owner-managed hostel with dorms and private rooms. www.mozambiquebackpackers.com
Hotel Villa das Mangas (moderate) is a small central boutique hotel set around a pretty garden with a pool. www.hipchichotels.net
The ocean-facing Serena Polana (expensive) has been Maputo’s most prestigious address since it opened in 1922. www.serenahotels.com
Mike Slater’s detailed www.mozguide.com is very useful.

The Church of St. George, Lalibela, is carved in the form of a Greek cross, from an excavation 40 ft (12 m) deep

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