ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Yes, I think they probably know it's Christmas by now

If, like me, you grew up in the 1980s, you probably have a view of Ethiopia that is pretty hard to shake off, defined largely by the media and celebrities of the day.

As impressionable children we witnessed Band Aid, Live Aid, Sport Aid (Remember that one -  'Everybody wants to Run the World'?) and the inaugural Comic Relief. Loads of money raised for a good cause. A cause that was relentlessly branded upon our collective conscience, pretty much all the time. For some years.

Ethiopia was deserts, flies and starving children. Ethiopian food? Well it wasn't anything was it? There was a famine. OK, maybe the diet consisted of the contents of those food packages paid for with the moneys raised by Bob, Midge and Lenny.

And that was the virtually intractable image we all had in our minds. That was Ethiopia.

Feed the world

But that was over 30 years ago, things have changed, and in all likelihood there has probably always been another Ethiopia that didn't make it onto our TV screens.

Without detracting at all from the seriousness of the famine, our world was fed a diet of oversimplification, designed to tug at the heart strings and our parents purses. And it was a success.

An Ethiopian beer, yesterday
I'm sure a lot of the charities involved did sterling work and the cash was put to good use, but the B-side of this is that a lot of people still have that really rather unfair mental image of Ethiopia, even today.

I haven't been - yet - but people who have tell me that the place is unrecognisable, at least compared to their expectations.

And I have just eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant, mind, so here's the lowdown on Adam's in Brixton , one of only a handful of Ethiopian eateries in London - there are also a few Eritrean places which are fairly similar. (We didn't hear much about Eritrea in the 80s, even though the situation there was arguably more desperate, with a war for Independence raging in addition to the famine...)

Anyhow, the food from this part of Africa is now relatively readily available over here, and that includes this unassuming little place, located at the mainly residential and less trendy Southern end of Brixton.

The centre-piece of an Ethiopian meal is their Injera flatbread, which is spongy and sour and when viewed close-up resembles tripe, or possibly some sort of toxic fungus. I know that doesn't make it sound particularly appetising.

I'll be honest, I probably wouldn't want to eat it on its own, and I'm not sure I'd want it wrapped around my favourite fillings either. But when paired with a bit of meat and a hot, spicy sauce (like the slow-cooked chickpea-based Shiro) it's perfectly fine and behaves a lot like a Scotch Pancake.

Let them know it's dinner time

The food here is typically served as big sharing platters, with blobs of various dishes plonked on top of a giant communal Injera. With extra Injera on the side and a jug of Shiro. That stuff is rather good, like a sort of thick, spiced pulse-custard, but the rest of the vegetables are a bit of mixed bag.

It's pretty weird stuff, this Injera
The cabbage isn't pleasant. Lukewarm and soggy, it's reminiscent of the sort of largely fictional school dinner for which we were told to be thankful because people were starving in places like Ethiopia.

There's a couple of different lentil things going which have a bit of zesty zing to them, and the spinach and green bean dishes are both fine, though not particularly exciting compared to, say, their South Indian equivalents.

Most, if not all of this is slow-cooked stuff, so they can serve it all day with minimal effort. I wonder if they might possibly even have some big pots on the go over multiple days if they're not busy - we were the only customers in there the entire time. That's perfectly fine, though some things survive slow-cooking better than others.

The Alicha Wot (beef stew) and particularly the Key Wot (a hot, red beef thing) fare better than the cabbage. The meat is extremely tender and the chilli and tamarind add big flavours that could easily have come from the Caribbean rather than the far side of Africa - though this is Brixton, so the recipe may have been optimised for the local market with a few Scotch Bonnets.

Adam's vegetable combination
Chicken, served (barely) on the bone, is melt-in-the-mouth too, and I could've eaten quite a bit more of that. There's a sort of crumbly curd cheese salad to complete the picture, which doesn't do a whole lot for me, but it's a different dimension, and more like something one would expect to find in North Africa or the Middle East.

This isn't a cuisine I knew fuck-anything about, and I was impressed by the variety and found the robust spiciness to my taste. Would I want to eat it all the time? All that Injera? Probably not.

This place is good value. Four of us visited and had a 'Meat combination' and a 'Vegetable combination' (both £23 and advertised for two) - there was more than enough food for all, particularly the Injera, which seemed to be in pretty much limitless supply, though I'm not sure anybody would want to eat that much of it. A bit more meat would've been nice, but then three of us were eating it.

And there's the meat (and egg and cheese and salad)
You can eat well with a beer for less than £20 a head - though beware that the place likes to close fairly early and are unlikely to serve you if you show up after 9 PM.

(The Habesha beer is a standard pale lager, but it's very sweet indeed and perhaps not the best accompaniment to the food. I'd have preferred something drier and cleaner, if any Ethiopian brewers happen to be reading!)

So, what do we think?

Obviously, there is some absolutely killer Jamaican, Bajan, Guyanese etc. food available around the Brixton area. This isn't really in the same league, but it's something a little different and, if nothing else, a fairly potent symbol of how much the world has changed since we fed it.

Where to find it...

 Adam's Ethiopian Restaurant
86 Brixton Hill,
SW2 1QN (map)

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