What does the name Ethiopia conjure up for you? Maybe long-distance running - if you can name one Ethiopian it will likely be Haile Gebreselassie, marathon man par excellence. You may also think of coffee (quite likely they invented it). Oldest Christian church in the world, anyone? And going even further back, Ethiopia can stake a valid claim to be the birthplace of civilization. If that proves to be the case, then we are all Ethiopians.
Many of you will have grown up with depressing images of Ethiopia - famine, disease, war, refugee camps - so it is heartening to learn that Ethiopians are not sad people at all. In fact, they are regular party animals, and smiley Haile Abebe, the de facto ambassador of the Ethiopian community in Brussels, is out to spread the word with co-owners Natalino Arena and Serge Anton. He already scored a hit with his first restaurant Kokob, and music and cultural venue Le Cercle des Voyageurs in which he still has an interest.
The new restaurant on the Rue de Laeken, a stone’s throw from Place de Brouckère and Sainte Catherine, is called Toukoul. (A toukoul is a small thatched hut where the Afar people of the Ethiopian Highlands live). The huge high-ceilinged room has been inventively and tastefully decorated by Serge Anton with genuine Ethiopian artworks.
At the official launch in January, live bands played smoky jazz and lively dance music and the place was packed wall to wall with fans of Ethio jazz funk.
At one point the chef gave an impromptu demonstration of vigorous Ethiopian eskesta dancing on the bar,
to noisy stamps and whistles of appreciation from the mixed Ethiopian and European crowd.
I returned in February for a less frenetic evening, with three other novices to Ethiopian cuisine. Not knowing much about it, we trusted in our waiter to serve us a typical selection, and were not
disappointed or hungry when we left.
The traditional Ethiopian meal consists of a large spongey sourdough flatbread called “injera” made from teff flour indigenous to Ethiopia, which is used as both plate and cutlery. It is served with small portions of various meat and vegetarian dishes, some spicy, others less so. Strips of injera are used to scoop up food. The various stews and mixes made from vegetables, pulses or meat such as lamb, beef or chicken, are known as wat or aticha and are seasoned with a hot chilli sauce called berbéré, ginger or erd (similar to turmeric). There are also fish dishes and a selection of salads.
The ‘Discovery Menu’, ranging from €18-25 a head, is the nearest thing to a typical Ethiopian meal - a selection of dishes served with a tray of injera and an explanation of how to eat it.
Vegetarians are easily catered for, with a good selection on offer, including spinach with mushrooms, lentils, split peas, ratatouille, ayeb (cottage cheese); the meat dishes range from diced chicken with spinach, minced beef spiced up with berbéré, and diced lamb in a creamy yogurt sauce to chicken with ginger and vegetables. All the dishes are extremely tasty, some are surprisingly mild - apart from the berbéré, nothing will blow your head off. An extra bowl of rolled injera strips is provided for you to break up and use them to scoop up the food on the tray. It’s a convivial and fun way of eating in a couple or a group, and apparently the typically Ethiopian way to do it is to feed each other with a mouthful of rolled and filled injera, called a “goursha”. The bigger the goursha, the deeper the friendship. If you don’t fancy your friends’ fingers in your mouth, or even your own, cutlery can be provided on request. After one of my party compared the injera strips to surgical bandages, I almost did.
After a communal meal eaten with the fingers from the same plate, treat yourself to an abridged version of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where diners are enveloped in burnt-coffee smelling steam, as the freshly-roasted beans are waved over the table like incense. The roasted coffee beans are then taken away and ground on the spot to produce a light coffee with a delicate flavour.
Alternatively, sip an Ethiopian herbal tea flavoured with ginger and cinnamon.
Toukoul serves tasty food in a warm and friendly atmosphere. During the week, discreet Ethiopian music provides background ambience. On Fridays and Saturdays there is live music, but not necessarily Ethiopian. We went just after the death of Whitney Houston, and the whole restaurant sang along to I Will Always Love You - not entirely soberly. Our waitress said, with a perfectly straight face: “She is here with us tonight.” (Ethiopians have a dry sense of humour.)
The service is efficient and extremely friendly, and accompanied by helpful explanations of the different dishes and how to eat them. The kitchen is open to the main room so you can see the chefs at work (when they’re not dancing on the bar, that is). Haile, Natalino and Serge make a point of going round chatting to all the customers, and everyone gets a warm handshake and a dazzling smile on their way out, with a genuine invitation to come again. I can endorse Toukoul for a night out with a difference. The word is already out, and the place gets very busy at weekends, so do book your table by Thursday for Friday or Saturday night.
Another gold medal for Ethiopia - this new venture should run and run. Haile recommended…