My first and only other time dining Ethiopian was several years ago in Footscray, Melbourne. If there was ever a place in Melbourne to have Ethiopian, Footscray with its diverse East African community, is it. I’m not blind to the fact that Australia is still geographically very far from Ethiopia. Coupled with the fact that this isn’t a cuisine I’m well-versed with, I’m incredibly hesitant to make the call on whether it was authentic, but it certainly was delicious. So much that when Alem’s House began doing the rounds on the Broadsheet carousel, all of us in cherry (Jeff, Sarah, you know the drill by now) sat up and paid attention.
It’s eventually a Friday evening that Jeff and I end up getting lost between two bus stops, missing several buses, before finally arriving at the doorstop of Alem’s House. The space is a little dark but very homey, with a dining area up the front and a laid-back space akin to one’s living room, in the back. To enter, we skirt past deep puddles of rain and a gushing burst pipe that Jeff dubs the restaurant’s ‘water feature’, welcome to the Newtown-y part of Camperdown.
Spiced ethiopian coffee $3.50
Jeff orders a coffee even though it’s 6.30 pm, because he inhales so much coffee on a daily basis that his body is caffeine resistant. This spiced version has Korerima (Ethiopian cardamom), cloves and cinnamon with the option of adding chilli. He liked how heavy it was on the cinnamon, noting the spice, not the sugar.
At the crux of Ethiopian cuisine is ‘injera’, a sourdough flatbread that is kind of spongy, and is made from teff. The menu, as simple as it appears, does the perfect job of explaining this all to us. Not only is teff gluten-free, but all of the sides at Alem’s are vegan and will cost a grand total of $8, including said injera.
With this in mind, we’re like kids in a candy store and it takes rational thought and willpower to not order the entire menu, something we could have easily accomplished if Sarah had made the trip with us. Instead we trim down to just four, the first of which I’m about to introduce to you is the mushroom tibs. Tibs are typically a cross between a stir fry and a stew. The Alem’s rendition develops as a saute with an undercurrent flavour of garlic and fennel seeds. The description also talks to having green chilli but I wasn’t able to detect any significant spice. Overall quite mild but paired exceedingly well with the injera.
Next is shiro, referred to as a chickpea stew, but comes out quick thick and slightly paste-like. It reminds me of a heavily spiced hummus, quite complex in flavour despite not having any animal products in the making of this dish. When you look recipes of shiro up online, the ingredients seem fairly simple. It leads me to think that the key to good shiro is in the balancing of each ingredient, and also the spice mix.
Coming up in third is gomen, made from sauteed spinach and onions laced with notes of ginger and garlic. I was expecting a palak paneer (minus the paneer) kind of vibe, and while it looked in form, it wasn’t in substance. There was a surprising undercurrent of bitterness to it which I didn’t hate but sometimes found hard to swallow. I like the texture of wilted greens though, so pairing it with some of the other sides helped to tone down the sharp aftertaste.
Atkilt wat rounds off our band of Teenage Mutant Injera Turtles, with a base of beans, carrots, and potato. The turmeric, garlic and onion seasoning gives it a flavour profile akin to dahl.
We truly had no complaints at Alem’s House and all the more so at such a good value price point. No drinks were had that night but should you be vino inclined, Alem’s House is BYO, with a bottle shop located in the near vicinity. Service was warm and friendly, you could tell that they are proud of their little place and in representing the food of their heritage. Apologies if I’ve gotten any of the dishes wrong. I’d be the first to admit to being an Ethiopian food newbie, but I am really interested to learn more. How amazing is the city of Sydney for making it possible for niche microcosms to showcase their culture.