There are probably only about 25 Ethiopian restaurants in the capital, which means they don't figure very prominently on most Londoners' radars when choosing a place to eat. What it does mean is that they're patronised mainly by the Ethiopian community, and as a result they provide some of the most authentic dining experiences in town.
Tobia, a newly refurbished 50-cover restaurant which sits on top of an Ethiopian community centre off the Finchley Road, is no different. "I learnt to cook from my mother, how all Ethiopian girls learn to cook," says Sophie Sirak-Kebede, chef, co-owner (together with her husband), sometime waitress and the general force behind the operation. She also trained and worked in hotel management in Germany and London with Hilton, a means to realise her dream of one day opening her own real Ethiopian restaurant. "I can guarantee that this food would have been eaten by her mother, by my fore-fore-mother, and by my fore-fore-fore mother," she says.
Another reason traditions have remained so firmly rooted is the strong religious principles that underpin Ethiopian culture. Before Christianity arrived in the fourth century AD, Ethiopia was a Jewish nation and kosher principles still dictate most dishes. These days the dominant church is Coptic, which means that Wednesdays (the day Christ was handed over to the Romans) and Fridays (the day he was crucified) are fasting days on which a strictly vegan diet is observed. Well, mostly.
"We have more rules than the Lord himself," laughs Sirak-Kebede. "Some Ethiopians eat fish on fasting days. But only the naughty ones."
She has opted to be naughty, and on Wednesdays and Fridays diners can eat fried sea bass and assa kifto, a sushi-style speciality of raw fish, as well as the vegan dishes. Raw meat of all descriptions is common in Ethiopia, dating from the 16th-century Muslim invasion. "The enemy followed the army camps by following their fires," explains Sirak-Kebede, "so they had to put out their fires and learnt to eat raw meat."
The habit stuck, and today she serves a kifto with spiced cottage cheese (£7.50), made by mincing beef topside or fillet and serving it with clarified butter, a little coriander, salt and a red chilli seed called "mitmita". Later in the year she will also introduce a raw lamb dish, anfele, where a piping hot sauce is poured over strips of marinated raw lamb.
The special clarified butter used in the kifto is made by heating butter with crushed garlic and ginger, ground coriander, red onions and a sweet basil called besobela. The garlic and chilli provide natural antibiotics for the raw meat. The clarified butter is made in advance and is integral to many Ethiopian dishes ("98%," reckons Sirak-Kebede), including gored gored - cubed beef served very rare with the butter and a chilli paste (£6.50). The flavours are also present in the stews, which in preparation owe much to Indian cooking, but without the curry flavours. Kikil is the lamb stew (£5), made by gently frying lots of onions until they're very dark brown (but not burnt) and then mixing them with garlic, ginger, coriander and black pepper. Finally, in goes the lamb (or chicken, or beef), and it's all left to cook for at least a further hour.
The stew is brought to the table on enjera, a huge pancake-like flatbread upon which most Ethiopian food is served, making cutlery redundant. Diners (who can sit at tables, or lie down, Ethiopian-style, on cushions next to a low table) tear off a piece of the bread, and take a scoop of food from whichever dish they want. In Ethiopia the dough is made from teff, a native cereal with tiny grains, and is fermented for about three days to give it its typical sourdough taste. Teff isn't readily available over here, so Sirak-Kebede often uses rye and millet. But in any case, efforts to make the bread with teff in the UK haven't worked very well, she says, perhaps because of the different water and weather conditions.
There are no starters but there are side dishes, including yetsom ayeb (£3), a vegan take on cottage cheese made with the flour of split peas, and aziffa, whole lentils with hot mustard, red onions and green chilli (£2.50). Most mains also come with a selection of condiments (awaze), which include paprika mixed with into pastes with either water, home-made honey mead or a form of ouzo. Sirak-Kebede also plans to add to the list of meads soon with a coffee, banana and even a chilli version.
The meal ends with an (optional) half-hour-long coffee ritual in which beans are roasted in front of you and evil spirits are chased away.
Authentic doesn't always mean good, but it does mean different, and for Londoners keen to experiment this is just the ticket.
Tobia, 2a Lithos Road, London NW3.
Tel: 020 7431 4213