Food and music in Jimma (and other Ethiopian) restaurants: some quibbles

A rather disgruntled Giorgio Bulgarelli writes:
I think you should clearly write that when you ask some of the Western dishes written in the menus of most Ethiopian restaurants, the usual answer is የለም (yäläm, or no). Not because they’ve finished the related ingredients, but because they never bought them. Usually, menus —also in some good restaurants— are written only once and left there till the paper is worn and needs to be replaced. I think it is only a way to fill the paper; no matter about the dishes.
Here, in Jimma, I decided to test the restaurants you quoted in your guidebook. Hence, some weeks ago I wished to taste some of the “varied selection of local and exotic dishes” of Central Jimma Hotel. My guest and I sat in the garden and ordered ‘tournedos à la Rossini’ and “filet mignon with mushroom sauce”. Although we were among the first customers of the day, the answer was, inevitably, yellem. Then, I asked for some other food and realised that almost half of the listed “exotic dishes” weren’t available.
The behaviour of the maître of the restaurant of Central Jimma Hotel is really irritant. I checked all the ferenj food there, and I found out that they only have two of them. The most irritant aspect was about continental breakfast. They clearly write that there are toasts, butter and jam and some unspecified “hot drink”. However, I spent a week there and everyday, since the early morning they had “finished” the butter notwithstanding there is a supermarket across the street where they could buy it, if they only wished. No way to have a pot of milk and one of coffee: they only serve cups filled till the edge with foaming liquid! Not to say of the “sirloin steak”, which is around 2 mm thick and tough as the sole of a shoe, or of the sourest fish goulash I ever tasted.
Just few words about goulash because it is commonly mistaken everywhere. In Hungary, where gulyás —this is the correct spelling— is the national food, it is not the dish known elsewhere. The meat stew which we wrongly call goulash is, actually, called pörkölt in Hungary ( In any case, pörkölt in Hungarian, means “sautéed” rather than “roasted”. The gulyás I ate there several times in Hungary is a rather thick soup of meat and vegetables. It used to be the meal of herdsmen living in the Puszta. However, waiters and waitress are so clever and patient, even in the most remote areas of Hungary, to bring you pörkölt when you ask for goulash. Unlike Ethiopia, I never saw fish pörkölt in Hungary. Although I do not know the recipe of Ethiopian fish goulash, it doesn’t seem that the fish has ever been “sautéed”.
At Central Jimma Hotel, the fish was fried in a lot of oil —like chips— and added to some sort of tomato sauce. Probably, the same they use for spaghetti.
In Italy we make fish sauces and various kinds —at least one for each region— of fish stews, however, in no case the fish is added fried to something else. The fish —one or more kinds of it, often also with mussels and crustaceans—is cooked first and then tomatoes and other ingredients are added. Therefore, the taste of the fish mixes with that of the other ingredients to make a real fish meal. Here. the fish adds no flavour to the rest unless you chew just a piece of it.
In some Ethiopian restaurants I found that they fry the fish even to make fish kebab!
My most frustrating experience was a couple of day ago at the restaurant of Nigus Palace Hotel. Probably the most expensive in town. My secretary knew that it was the best restaurant in Jimma and I wanted to test it by inviting one of my colleagues. The environment looked inviting, and really tempted was the menu with pages and pages of “exotic” foods. Unfortunately, only two or three of them were available. The waitress didn’t know which they were and had to go to ask each time. After having ordered six different dishes which weren’t available, I decided to eat two eggs fried on one side only. Some minutes later a waiter came with two hard eggs! I must point out that the fried eggs were ordered by me in English but confirmed in Amharic by my secretary. Fortunately, my guests had ordered two of the available dishes and the waiter took the right ones.
You write that they ‘may’ add ሽንኩርት (šänkurt), ቲማቲም (timatim) and ቃሪያ (qariya)  to the omelettes. Well, only in very few special exceptions I got real “plain” omelette or scrambled eggs. They always add something else; at least qariya. Once, I clearly asked for a “plain” omelet without anything added. As a result, they served me an omelette from which they had taken out the ‘extras’ after having cooked it.
Moreover, apart from the wrong way in which they are written, in 90% of cases the dishes do not comply with the recipes known elsewhere.
Only for “pasta with tomato sauce” you can be —almost— sure. Even though the sauce tastes more “alla arrabbiata” ( than “col pomodoro”. And, although it can be spelt “macaroni” or something similar, the pasta is only spaghetti while, as you certainly know, there are more than 200 varieties of pasta (
I found out that, except for some few notable exceptions, if you ask for something “roasted” or “grilled”, it is actually fried on a hot plate like hamburgers. The result is that the meat, fish or whatever else, is fried in its own grease, with unpleasant —and, maybe, harmful— effects on the level of cholesterol and triglycerides! I saw few appliances with racks used only for open-air barbecues .
About exotic foods, they are mostly something different from the original ones. I wanted to taste “fish meunière ” at the restaurant of Honeyland Hotel in Jimma. The food was delicious, but it wasn’t at all à la meunière because the fish had not been dredged in seasoned flour as needed (
Not to say of Italian “carbonara” and “bolognese” sauces that you can read in many menus, but which must be done with pancetta, a sort of unsmoked bacon ( I tasted it in true Italian restaurants in Addis —such as Castelli and Circolo Juventus— made with pancetta, and I think it is the same in all resturants run by Italians with an Italian chef. Since in Eritrea they use some awful halal “mortadella” to make “carbonara”, I didn’t even try to taste it non-Italian restaurants.
Just to let you know, good fake mortadella, ham and similar cold cuts can be found in most kosher stores in Rome. The Jewish community in Rome is probably the oldest in the world and certainly in Europe. There were already some Jews in the 2nd century BCE. However, most of them were deported to Rome from emperor Titus after he destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
I think you should warn the readers of a further, very important —and for me really disturbing— point: it is very difficult to find a restaurant without some —often very loud— Ethiopian music. I love any kind of music —ancient, mediaeval, renaissance, baroque, classic, romantic, contemporary, symphonic, concert, jazz, religious, folk, choral, pop, indie, rock, opera, etc.— and there is always some background music wherever I work or live. However, unless I want to pay attention to the words of a song or opera, the music has to be in the background and kept at a low volume. Very often, in some Ethiopian restaurants I am even unable to speak with the person sitting beside me because of the noise. In some cases, you even find loud music and television together. I wonder how somebody could be able to listen to anything of them, but this is the way it goes. Although somebody may like Ethiopian music most ferenj will end up with hating it after having spent two months here.Unless they are here just to record the music!

Live music in Addis Ababa

Many thanks to John Grinling for this excellentt summary of the live music scene in Addis Ababa in mid-2014:

The music scene in Addis Abeba is wonderful, enthusiastic and varied. Ethiopian music, with its unique rhythms, beat, vibrations and sounds might be, like whisky, an acquired taste: it aims at inducing trance either by way of a distinctive and energetic dance music, or through hypnotic wailing melodies that have an undeniable Arab or Oriental clang.

Marvelous musicians and bands perform every evening in numerous venues, starting usually around 10.30 PM. Exceptions are the Sheraton’s Office Bar where the Zemen Band plays from Thursdays to Saturdays as from 8 PM. And the Jupiter Hôtel in Kazanchis featuring Bibisha and Co every Thursday after 7 PM.

But for a more thrilling experience, you should visit either the venerable Jazz Amba, on the right side of the Taitu Itegue hotel at Piazza. Or the pleasant and homely Mama’s Kitchen, on Bole road, the avenue leading to the Airport just after the huppé Black Rose bar, a fine place to waste time before a concert by watching Addis’s jet set.

And there is also Jams, a club situated 500 m. beyond Yod Abyssinia at Bole Medhane Alem, a comparatively new venue offering superb Reggae and Salsa. Reggae is on Thursdays and Saturdays by the well-established “Imperial Majestic Band” with Sydney Solomon as the star singer and dancer. Expect to hear also plenty of great reggae guest musicians there: Addis is indeed a required stop on the road to Shashamane, the Rastafari Makkah.

Good reggae, of a wilder kind, could be heard on weekends at the 3rd floor Smokey Blues Café in Shegger’s building. Barefoot Rasta, the polyglot veteran who doesn’t wear shoes, plays on Fridays at Zanzibar, a difficult to find joint near Bole Airport. But my personal favorite reggae singer is called Ayou. He sings on Thursdays at Jazz Amba with the Express Band.

Most performances do include some Reggae, even at the Sheraton. The band leader Vahé also sometimes interprets with much passion his own compositions in Armenian.

Virtuoso British percussionist Eshee Havana’s all Ethiopian salsa band plays on Fridays also at Jams. They conjure up a powerful Latino pulse that sends dazzling couples spinning. Unforgettable.

Mama’s Kitchen proposes a varied choice: First the famous Monday’s Jam Session, backed by the solid Nubian Ark musicians. It is packed with connoisseurs and artist who take turns to rouse the audience. On Tuesday, it is Michael Lema’s performance, a great new singer with his Ethiopian music band. Wednesday belongs to traditional Azmari Beit music, where the masinko (a one string sort of violin played usually by wondering minstrel) takes center stage, accompanied by drum and singer. On Thursday’s and Saturday’s, the Lubac Acoustic Band plays with most famous singer Alemayu Eshete, the star guest on the weekend. Friday you have the Blue Vibes Band and Sundays are for Samuel Yirga’s Jazz Band.

The ancestor of these venues is the steady Jazz Amba :

Tuesday: Ethio Jazz by Addis Taim band and the famed singer Getachew Kassa.

Wednesday: Legendary Alemayehu Eshete backed by the remarkable funk band named Nubian Arc.

Thursday, my favorite evening, with Michael Lema and reggae singer Asayehegn Alemu, better known as Ayu. They play with the Express Band of Haileyesus Girma.

Friday: Oldies interpreted by Addis Acoustic Project Band, with the elderly singers Girma Negash and Bahta Gebre-Hiwot as well as a few other excellent vocalists.

Saturday: Zemen Band with modern English and Amharic songs by Tsedenia Gebre Markos and other artists.

Sunday: Bati Groove’s Quartet Jazz Band plays with Dawit Melese.

The well-regarded Ghion Hotel, close to Mesquel square, now cooperates with the internationally famous vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke and has set up a “Jazz village” in its vast premises. The Belema Jazz Band is supposed to take stage on Wednesday and Saturday. Misto Misto Band plays on Thursday, Express Band on Friday, and when Mulatu is in town, he performs on Saturdays, joined usually by other great Ethiopian musicians.

This was the situation mid-2014. But venues and performers often change. Fortunately, most of these locations now run Facebook pages that are reasonably up to date. It is highly advisable to check them out.

True Ethiopian ambiance can also be found in less illustrious but more traditional scenes, such as Messafint’s cabaret (off Meskal Flower rd), or Fendika (in Kasantchis quarter)animated by renowned dancer Melaku, or my personal favorite, the Dome in the basement of the ill-famed Concorde Hotel on Debre Zeit road.

Crowded by locals as well as by lively Chinese and by Arabs keen to change from their diet of alcohol abstinence and veiled women, these hideouts propound a blend of music, song, traditional dances, drinks and Azmari performances that generate a special quality of happiness, abandon et euphoria you will experience nowhere else.


Benno’s updates

I spent a few months in Addis Ababa last year, and got introduced to Hailleab from Overland Ethiopia Hailleab organised travel for me to different destinations and for different purposes (work related and pleasure). He proved not only adept at fixing things so every thing went without hassles, but was a great travel companion … knowledgeble and good company. If you’re looking for a local to help smooth your peregrinations in Ethiopia, Hailleab is your man. He also organises and accompanies group tours so even if you’re not on your own like I was, you should give him a go. I highly recommend him.

A note about airfares. If you have the time and its not inconvenient, I recommend buying domestic airfares on Ethiopian Airlines in person at one of their offices. Much cheaper than their (unreliable) website. For example, I bought two domestic return tickets from Addis to Gambela at the Ethiopian office between the airport and Bole Medenhalem paying cash and it cost USD$90 RT pp. instead of the $180pp advertised online. This is probably true for all East Africa flights (flights to Tanzania, Kenya etc. all go from the ”domestic” terminal) and I think have the same sales terms.

Also, can I plug my favorite Jazz club … also near Bole, Club Alize. Its right near the minibus taxi interchange. (Go around the back and down into the basement.) Thursday nights’ band is called Addis Acoustic Renaissance. They’re terrific.


Old Aster Aweke recordings

I just came across this amazing website Anybody with more than a passing interest in African music could explore it for days. But if you like Aster Aweke, download the old cassette posted in  October 2010. Sounds totally different & very much older and more traditional than other other CD or cassette I’ve ever heard from her. Fascinating stuff.