It’s rare to find a restaurant in Manchester nowadays that relatively few people know about. The advent of websites such as Manchester Confidential, as well as the ever increasing glut of Northern food bloggers means that when one person finds a place that no one else has discovered, you’ll inevitably soon find the rest of the city’s foodies flocking to it. So, I was genuinely surprised when I received my monthly Gastroclub email informing me that this month, we were going to be dining at Habesha, an Ethiopian restaurant situated in the Gay Village. Ethiopian food? In Manchester? Speaking as someone who loves nothing more than a huge wodge of injera smothered in spicy stew, I’ll admit that I was suprised by the fact that I’d a) never heard of the place, and yet b) had walked past it practically every day when I lived in Manchester. Obviously, my powers of observation aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
My first experience of Ethiopian food came when I was in Amsterdam last year, when someone on Twitter suggested that I try out Fenan Klein Afrika. It was a revelatory experience. For a few euros, myself and Mr. Cay feasted like kings on huge portions of piquant beef and chicken stews, all washed down with some of the most delicious coffee we’ve ever tasted. It was one of the highlights of our holiday, and left me with a huge appreciation for this type of cuisine – as well as a desire to eat as much of it as humanly possible. Discovering that there was an Ethiopian restaurant in Manchester was like discovering some kind of holy grail. Made out of meat.
When I arrived at Habesha, it was easy to see why I’d walked past it so many times without giving it a second glance. Mainly because, despite all of the times I’ve walked down Sackville Street over the years, I’d never bothered to look up. Habesha is situated above a busy kebab shop meaning that, if you tend to walk past huge neon signs in a daze like I so often do, you’d never know that it was there. Thankfully my powers of perception were sharper this time – which is a good thing as myself and Mr. Cay were over forty minutes late arriving to the restaurant due to an almighty cock up by Northern Rail. By the time I managed to sit down and catch my breath I was tired, hungry, and in desperate need of beer.
After downing a rather tasty bottle of Ethiopian lager (which bore a label sporting a brilliant image of St George slaying a dragon), we decided to order three different dishes – Doro Wot, chicken legs marinated in lemon sauteed in seasoned butter and stewed in red pepper flavoured with onions, ginger and cardamom, Yebeg Alicha Fitfit, a mild spicy lamb stew and Yetsom beyeynetu, portions of stewed lentils, spinach, and a mild mixed vegetable sauce made with cabbage, potato and carrots seasoned with spices.
When our food arrived, we soon realised that our eyes may have been bigger than our bellies. Ethiopian food consists of portions of stew doled out onto portions of a traditional bread called injera, a large flat – slightly sour – bread which has the consistency of a huge pikelet. When you eat, you just rip pieces of this off with your hands, scoop up a bit of stew, and stuff it into your mouth. It’s an immensely messy (and slightly graceless) way of eating, yet wonderfully communal. After all, it’s hard to effect airs and graces when you’re trying not to dump sauce down the front of your top. To prepare us for this experience, we were served a basket full of fresh warm injera, rolled up like edible warm towelettes. We had great fun slapping them out onto the table, ripping them in two and using them to scoop up huge hunks of meat.
I adored the Doro Wat – pieces of chicken which practically fell off the bone on contact. The sauce was rich with berbere, that amazingly fragrant mix of spices which is the key to Ethiopian and Eritrean food, with all of the vegetables and spices cooked down in butter until they formed a rich, dark red slick. It was impossible to stop wiping my pieces of bread around the bowl, trying to pick up every drop of this amazing elixir. The Yebeg Alicha Fitfit – although not as good – was still a decidedly tasty bowl of food. Cubes of lamb had been cooked down to breaking point and were swimming in a bowl of spicy, tomato heavy broth. It was the perfect thing to wolf down between huge mouthfuls of beer whilst putting the world to rights with my beloved.
However, the stand out dish of the night was, surprisingly, the mix of vegetables all laid out in a neat row. I’ve always felt that a good restaurant can be measured on how well it cooks its vegetarian dishes, and Habesha is no exception. Each one of these dishes was perfectly cooked and seasoned – with the mix of cabbage, potato and carrots being the stand out (who knew that seasoned root vegetables could taste this good?) It felt sinful when I had to push this plate away saying that my stomach couldn’t feasibly hold any more before it popped in a Mr. Creosote-esque fashion.
After every slap up meal comes coffee. And once we’d eaten our fill, we were invited to enjoy a cup of the good stuff with our dining companions. The beans were roasted in front of us by the chef, who delighted in putting the roasted under our noses so we could inhale big lungfuls of the heavenly perfumed smell. The finished product was divine – light and fruity, with a floral note to it, it was a million miles away from the thick black engine oil I’m so used to gulping down on a daily basis.
Despite being situated above a kebab shop, Habesha definitely doesn’t serve fast food. However, it does serve some of the best, most unique food in Manchester. Best of all, it’s sinfully cheap too – a huge meal for two people came to £30. No, that’s not each, and yes, does include booze and coffee.
So, if you’re ever on Sackville Street looking for a place to go to mop up the remnants of a hangover, eschew the kebabs and look up. You’ll be surprised at the brilliant food you can get for the price of the loose change in your wallet.
29-31 Sackville Street