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East African Café is open for take-out and delivery during their regular hours (open at noon; closed Sunday and Tuesday).
They don’t have a patio — or the space that would make any sense to add one, so don’t forget to support them as you can!
It’s a great choice for vegetarian and vegan eating, and … Stephen Hawking ate here.
This story was originally published in The Kitchener Post.
East African Café
50 Ontario Street South
Kitchener, ON N2G 1X5
The idea is simple: cook up a half-dozen or so legumes and vegetables, arrange them on a large pancake-like disc and invite several of your friends to dig in – without utensils.
That’s the basic concept – the sensory and tactile nature of the experience – when you eat with your fingers at an Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant like East African Café in downtown Kitchener.
Back story: Eritrean and Ethiopian tradition
Owner Afework Girmayie, a civil engineer by training, is Eritrean and came to Canada from Ethiopia through Greece in 1993, where he met his wife Helen. They’ve operated the restaurant for 12 years with Helen taking care of the cooking, while Afework oversees the front-of-house.
He says that he wants to encourage vegan diners to visit, though there is beef and lamb on the menu.
“In Eritrea and Ethiopia, we eat vegan 200 days of the year,” says Girmayie. “That’s a tradition.”
The 40-seat restaurant has a menu with a half-dozen vegetarian options, such as misir (split red beans), lentils, ater alicha (yellow peas) and tikil gomen, a stew of potatoes, cabbage and carrots.
Hamlie is a deliciously grassy combination of greens like collard and kale jacked up by some garlic. The shiro – mostly chickpeas, beans, garlic, chilies and garlic – is good as well.
Veggie platter: a palette for your palate
Order the veggie platter and visually the legumes and vegetables form a delicious rainbow on an injera palette; my palate tells me that just about every dish features garlic, and there’s deep and rich flavour here that derives from the seasoning and the longer cooking process needed to soften the fibrous legumes.
On the meat side, kifto is the cuisine’s version of tartare, while either sautéed lamb or beef go into making alicha tibs, small cubes of protein with spiced butter. And, of course, there’s berbere: it’s a not-too-hot chile pepper-based blend that’s key to cooking in Ethiopia and used in many dishes.
Varying from mild to spicy, these form the side dishes, essentially, because that bubbly, pancake-like flatbread, injera, is the centre of attention – and the vehicle for transporting ater alicha to your mouth.
The large disc is made with teff flour (a grass native to the region around Ethiopia), sorghum flour and wheat. “Injera is round. We all sit down in a circle around it and eat,” according to Girmayie, who says he’s working on a gluten-free injera that will always be on the menu.
(With at least 24 hours notice, the kitchen can create a gluten-free version.)
Gluten or not, the injera, soft, moist and slightly tangy, is the centerpiece of a quintessentially communal dining experience with others, but it also puts you in close contact with your food. “It’s good to use your fingers to eat,” Girmayie adds. “You have the feeling of the food in your hand.”
Stephen Hawking ate here
Pre-Covid, there was a vegan buffet on Tuesdays, from noon to 3 p.m. That is something to look forward to in the months ahead — we hope.
East African Café is licensed. Dishes are made fresh to order, so they may take a bit of time to get to your table, when you are sitting at the table.
And, by the way, amid the space-time continuum of the pandemic, it’s good to know that the late, great physicist Stephen Hawking ate here.