October 22, 2021

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Postcard from Shepherd’s Bush — a taste of Ethiopia

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The other stallholders at Shepherd’s Bush Market are still setting up as we gather around the blenders at Osman’s. Glasses of freshly juiced organic ginger are circulated: a staple of east African cookery, it’s fragrant, fiery and a much-needed wake-up call on an otherwise sleepy July morning in London.

Five miles west of the city centre, far beyond the routes of the open-top buses, Shepherd’s Bush Market sees few tourists. But it is one of the off-the-beaten-track locations being showcased as part of a series of new, female-led tours of the capital, itineraries shaped by the presence of immigrant stories and communities rather than postcard clichés or Instagram honeypots.

The Ethiopian Flavours tour is an exploration of the market and surrounding streets, culminating in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. As we wander past stalls selling all manner of fresh produce, guide Sefanit Mengiste explains the abundance and variety of Ethiopia’s cuisine to our rather reduced party of two (it can number as many as 12).

“Ethiopia is a land of origin — we believe we are the land of the first human beings,” she says. “And if you plant something, it will grow.”

A portion of the Ethiopian Flavours tour price goes to Women in Travel
A portion of the Ethiopian Flavours tour price goes to Women in Travel © Urban Adventures

Any misgivings about touring a city I have known for decades are quickly swept aside. These are much more personal stories of London, told by people who have lived them rather than just learnt them. All the guides are women, with the aim to create opportunities in the travel industry (a portion of ticket sales goes to social enterprise Women in Travel) and offer new perspectives on places that might outwardly be familiar to participants.

Mengiste herself arrived in London from Ethiopia more than 20 years ago; now she wants to represent her country in the city, before eventually returning there to work in tourism. “It’s an opportunity to empower women, to show different cultural equality, and to break stereotypes,” she says.

Coffee is a big deal for Ethiopia, both socially and economically

Without her direction, I would probably never have noticed Messi Abyssinia on Goldhawk Road, a trove of Ethiopian essentials: teff flour, coffee beans and spices that form the berbere mix essential to much of the country’s cuisine, including korarima (a kind of cardamom) and ajwain, sometimes known as Ethiopian cumin.

There are also shelves upon shelves of jebena, clay coffee pots integral to the ceremony that is traditionally accorded to the drink. Coffee is a big deal for Ethiopia, both socially and economically: in 2019 it accounted for over a quarter of the value of the country’s exports, with nearly as much again consumed domestically. There’s even a top-flight football club called Ethiopian Coffee SC.

Artwork seen on the Ethiopian Flavours tour
Artwork seen on the Ethiopian Flavours tour © Urban Adventures

Coffee beans will be roasted over charcoal
Coffee beans will be roasted over charcoal © Urban Adventures

For our coffee ceremony, Mengiste leads us back into the market and under the railway arch that has been home to Ethiopian kitchen Delina since March last year.

Our host Nazareth first roasts the beans over charcoal at the table, with the pan passed around to spread the aroma, before grinding them. They are then transferred to the jebena and brewed exactly three times — partly a nod to the sanctity of the tradition, partly for the taste — before pouring. The whole process can take an hour or more, during which we consume exactly three cups and Mengiste valiantly tries to teach us some few basic words of Amharic.

We also take brunch with the coffee: misir alicha (red lentils), yebeg wot (a spiced lamb stew) and atakilt (a stir fry of cabbage and carrots). All of this sits on a base of injera, the ubiquitous teff-based flatbread, your taste for which in effect determines your compatibility with Ethiopian food as a whole. It is a delicately spiced combination of flavours — and a much needed dose of unfamiliarity after the monotony of lockdown.

More London tours are planned, while an Albanian-oriented stroll along the South Bank is already up and running. For now, with many borders still closed and others requiring the inconvenience of tests and quarantines, there’s no better time to be a stranger in the cities we call home.

Details

Chris Allnutt was a guest of Intrepid Urban Adventures. The Ethiopian Flavours in Shepherd’s Bush tour lasts 2.5 hours; the price depends on the group size, as an example it would be £49 per person, based on a group of four, or £28 per person if there are eight guests. 15 per cent of all ticket sales go directly to Women in Travel

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