Ethiopian Cuisine at Cafe Lalibela
Ethiopian food is exotic and distinct. The Vietnamese have the banh mi, thanks to French baguettes; India has soupy curry, due to the insistence of its British colonizers; and the Thai only put condensed milk in their tea once American GIs introduced the ingredient to the region. These fusions are cherished and delicious, but nothing like this exists in Ethiopia. There’s something tantalizing about a culinary tradition that’s evolved for thousands of years largely isolated from the rest of the world.
Cafe Lalibela was born 21 years ago under the hard work of nine Ethiopian immigrants, led by Atsada Desda. In the years since, it has slowly and steadily grown into a beloved culinary fixture in Tempe. For much of that time, Atsada cooked all day everyday. It’s hard to find chefs capable of cooking Ethiopian food. The cuisine demands patience and learned expertise. Many of the stews, called Wats, are slow cooked and must be lovingly slaved over for many hours. The country’s signature orange spice berbere, which you can buy at Cafe Lalibela, is a precise combination of up to 12 components.
In Ethiopia, coffee is serious. It is consumed three times a day, and each time fresh green beans are roasted, ground, and mixed in a special clay pot with boiling water. This famous Ethiopian coffee is served at Cafe Lalibela in the traditional style ($6.95 for plenty to share). It is smooth, strong, deeply flavorful, and requires no cream or sugar to make it more palatable.
Ethiopian food is natural and healthy. Its cornerstone is injera bread, a sourdough made of teff flour. Cafe Lalibela is one of the only Ethiopian establishments in the Valley where you’ll find sourdough-esque, authentic, flourless injera (though they do offer the more Americanized version as well). Ethiopia’s naturally gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, largely vegan cuisine fits like a glove into modern health trends. Cafe Lalibela has capitalized on this and now distributes food products at Whole Foods stores across the state.
Ethiopian food is communal, and according to Atsada, “You can never feed a stranger if you’re not willing to feed them as if they were your own children.” While they do offer individual portions, traditionally the meal comes for a group, in the form of a selection of delicious mounds of Wat on a large flat piece of injera, with plenty more on the side. Be sure to wash your hands as there are no forks on the table. Rip off a piece of spongy injera and use it to grab a bit of Wat. My dining partner and I went for the Lalibela Deluxe Combo ($35.95), recommended for two.
The platter was beautiful and flavorful. The Wats are slow cooked, creamy and delectable. The flavors are rich and varied. Our platter featured lamb, beef, chicken (in the form of the restaurant’s famous spicy Doro Wat), green beans, collard greens, lentils, and cabbage all perfectly infused with the fatty and distinct flavors of Ethiopia.
Ethiopian food is historic, exotic, communal, healthy, fun, and delicious and there’s no better place in the Valley to get it than at Cafe Lalibela. Atsada moved to the other side of the world and worked incessantly to build something that has now, with the help of her son Anibal, turned into a powerful African-cultural institution that is poised to continue to grow. But still, at its core, Cafe Lalibela is about family, good food, and culture, and we are lucky to have it in our community.
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