It had been a long time since I’d feasted on Ethiopian food, so I was eager to revisit this hearty, communal fare for which I now had serious cravings.
Tobia, another name for Ethiopia, is located in a rather concealed position above an Ethiopian Community Centre off bustling Finchley Road. You probably wouldn’t come across it on your own, so diners are clearly there by word of mouth.
Modest and simplistic in its décor (I would warmly liken it to eating in someone’s living room), the warm welcome by delightful owner Sophie and the spicy wafts of home cooking assure you’re in for something exotic and sumptuous. Diners can choose to sit at conventional tables or kick back on low sofas covered in traditional woven cloths.
For the uninitiated, the Ethiopian staple food is enjera, a pancake-shaped spongy sour flat bread made from a grain called Teff. At the base of most dishes, enjera is used in place of cutlery to lusciously scoop up heaping mouthfuls – and I love that individual orders are presented together, with the tangy morsels scattered around a large plate of enjera for all to share.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, the restaurant adheres to strict religious fasting periods, so the menu is primarily vegan (although some fish dishes area available). On other days, the petite authentic menu offers strikingly tempting plates such as difo tib, an ancient recipe for half a leg of marinated lamb covered in banana leaf. At £10.50, it’s the most expensive main dish on offer. There’s also the melt-in-your-mouth doro watt, chicken smothered in chilli sauce and served with a boiled egg, and an assortment of piquant vegetarian dishes – the chick peas are a must. And side dishes (£2.50 to £3.75) like buticha, a cold scrambled egg dish with green chillies, offer a welcome contrast.
The drink house specialty is Tej, an Ethiopian mead which frankly gets better the more you have, but is worth a try. You can always stick to the reasonable listing of reds and whites ranging from £10.00 to £25.00 per bottle. Surprisingly, you can even find Dom Perignon on the menu for a mere £120!
Dessert (£3.50) basically consists of sorbet, ice cream and fresh fruit, and frankly that is all you’ll have room for after your lush meal.
Interestingly, the restaurant also conducts a 30-minute traditional coffee ceremony towards the end of the evening, which involves roasting the beans and burning frankincense to peacefully eliminate any bad spirits. Ethiopian regional dancers are also on hand on Saturday evenings accompanied by traditional music.
Tobia also sells a selection of Ethiopian condiments to take away – awazes for meat and fish, and kulet, cooking sauces for meat, poultry, seafood and pulses.
Tobia is a lovely place – inexpensive, hearty and full of family warmth – definitely a local hangout. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop in for a gastronomic journey to East Africa.