TORONTO OFFERS MYRIAD CHOICES for people who like Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine, with restaurants sprinkled around the city, and especially in two clusters: along Bloor Street West and along Danforth Avenue – essentially the same street, joined by a bridge over the Rosedale Ravine.
But if you want to explore a unique element of the city’s Ethiopian cuisine, you need to visit the 200 block of Parliament Street.
That’s where you’ll find the new Haneed House and the established Noor Pizza – yes, pizza – two Ethiopian restaurants owned and operated by Ethiopian Moslems who come from the heavily Moslem-influenced city of Harar.
And right nearby are two Moslem-owned Ethiopian markets: the small Ware Grocery Store (44 Dundas St. West), just around the corner from the restaurants; and the larger, well-stocked Kullubi Food & Spice (223 Parliament St.), which has some nicely priced kibe kemem, a mixture of spices used to make niter kibe, or Ethiopian clarified butter. It’s about $12 a pound, compared with $20 a pound or more in Washington, D.C.
Both of the Parliament restaurants have a variety of Ethiopian and other foods, but the specialty of the block is hulbat marakh, a dish that comes from the Moslem cultures of Ethiopia. The two restaurants only make it on weekends, and it’s not on their regular menus. So consider yourself to be an insider now that you know about it. (Californians can also find the dish at Moura’s (Dirdawa) Cafe in Inglewood.)
Haneed House (272 Parliament St.) opened a few months ago and offers a diverse menu, from breakfast through dinner (it keeps long hours, seven days a week). One portion of the menu lists three familiar Ethiopian dishes: beef tibs, chacha tibs (tibs with a different cut of beef), and dulet (a dish made with liver, tripe and beef, and occasionally found at other Ethiopian restaurants). There’s also pasta, sandwiches and wraps made with Tandoori nan, and tiramisu for dessert.
For breakfast, there’s the traditional ful (made with fava beans), and also several dishes with fatera, which the menu describes as “a homemade Ethiopian fried flour pita.” This is the Adere (Harari) word for what Amharic calls kita, and it’s sometimes referred to as the “Ethiopian pizza.” Haneed offers fatera futa with scrambled eggs and beef, fatera with tibs and fatera with honey. You can also enjoy some very un-Ethiopian French toast, and other main courses made with beef, veal, chicken and goat.
At Noor (260 Parliament St.), just a few storefronts away, there’s traditional pizza with a wide variety of toppings, all of it halal to keep in line with Moslem dietary laws. But if you didn’t know the provenance of this place, you would never taste the difference in its pizza. The Amharic marquee above its front door (see photo below) says “Noor Pizza and Restaurant” on the first line, and on the second line, “we will also send money,” meaning wire transfers to people back home.
The hulbat marakh at Noor is just a touch spicier than its counterpart at Haneed, and also a little bit more effervescent. The sauce for hulbat marakh contains berbere, fenugreek, tomato, onions and other spices (chef’s choice, more or less), and at Noor, you can smell and taste the fenugreek. The dish is more or less a stew, with chunks of meat and potato served in the sauce. At Haneed House, it’s a thicker sauce, with injera soaked into the mixture. The sauce at Noor is more broth-like.
These places use berbere in their hulbat marakh, but I did find a German website that says this about the dish: “The national dish of Harari and the Oromos around Harar, it’s a sauce, slightly tart, usually with meat. Hulbat marakh is flavored with many herbs and is a delicacy. It is traditionally made without butter and without berbere.”
As for the name of the dish, simply translated, it means “fenugreek broth.” The word marakh is akin to the Amharic merek, which means broth, and hulbat translates into the Amharic abish, which is the spice we call fenugreek in English. So hulbat marakh refers to a broth with meat and seasoned with fenugreek (among other spices, of course).
And by the way, neither place offers qualima, a spicy beef or lamb sausage made in the Harari region. Another type of Harari beef sausage is called wakalim, and mutabbak is a sweet Harari treat made of sesame seeds and honey. You can learn how to prepare wakalim and mutabbak by downloading this PDF article with the recipes.
One afternoon in June, I happened into Haneed House and chatted with six men sitting together and enjoying large bowls of hulbat marakh along with a few other dishes. It was like a meeting of the United Nations of Ethiopia, a country sometimes divided by its more than 80 languages and the cultures that go with them.
An affable fellow named Mohammed led the welcoming party. He was Oromo, the plurality culture in Ethiopia, but not the culture that rules the country. One of his friends was Gurage, a well-know minority culture, and two of the men were Amhari Christians. Mohammed said their unity comes from the fact that they’ve lived in big cities, where people learn to get along. But people who live in Ethiopia’s more rural tribal areas, he said, look suspiciously at anyone not of their culture.
Mohammad, who came from the Kafa region of Ethiopia, offered me a few cautions about eating hulbat marakh. You have to eat it with a spoon or your hands will smell from the strong spices, and if you eat it two or three days in a row, your sweat will smell like it. This was, I think, more culture lore and pride than culinary fact.
After my meal, I needed to use the washroom. The men’s room was closed for repairs, so I used the women’s room, where I read the following sign: “For your safety, please do not perform wudu (abulation) in here.” That’s the Moslem ritual of washing the hands, arms, feet and head before prayer. I added this caveat to my list of firsts that afternoon.
A place like this might click in a diverse upscale neighborhood in a big U.S. city. But my server at Haneed House told me that they rarely have customers not of their culture, and the restaurant has no presence on the internet. This is a place that caters to its kin. She said non-Ethiopian customers have commented on the spiciness of the food, but I’ve had much spicier. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.
So to lovers of Ethiopian cuisine – and to any culinary adventurer – I highly recommend these tasty homespun restaurants. The employees welcome you warmly, and the food warms you up even more.
University of Pittsburgh
If you think Ethiopian food can’t be funny, then watch this video, “Hulbet vs. Pizza,” made by the Harari Community Association of Australia for a celebration marking the Moslem new year 1443, which began on Nov. 26, 2011. Just one caution: It’s in Adare. But it has some nice photos of hulbet marakh.