There aren’t all that many places in Perth that offer traditional African cuisine, however there are a few small restaurants scattered around, and Echye’s in Victoria Park is one of them. Echye’s is an eatery along the cafe strip offering a selection of dishes from the traditional Eritrean cuisine, and was opened in December of 2012 by a mother and her daughter from Eritrea. Eritrea is a small nation in the northern parts of the Horn of Africa and borders the Red Sea. The official languages of modern day Eritrea are Tigrinya, Arabic and English, however spoken Italian is relatively widespread in parts, owing to the fact that Eritrea was ruled by the Kingdom of Italy until the mid 1900s.
Everything about the restaurant, from the menu to the interior decor, gave a very comforting and homely vibe. Even the restaurant’s name has some personal significance to the family behind the scenes, being the owner’s nickname. A younger relative, in an attempt to use the Tigrinya word for “aunty”, produced a mispronunciation that sounded more like “echye”. This has stuck since ever since and has become the name of the restaurant. Echye and her daughter, Meareg, have been in Australia for about six years, and opening up a restaurant has been a long-time dream for them. While Echye is in the kitchen cooking, Meareg is in charge of the presentation and decor.
The Eritrean cuisine features many stewed meat and legume dishes, certainly not lacking in a spicy kick. Berbere is one of the basic spice mixes that characterises Eritrean cuisine, and is used in many of its dishes. In addition to an assortment of herbs and spices native to the Horn of Africa (many of which cannot be readily obtained in Australia, so the berbere is instead imported), Berbere can contain a series of ingredients more familiar to the western palate, such as ground red chili, cardamom, cinnamon, garlic, onion, fenugreek and cloves. This potent concoction is traditionally used to flavour slow cooked meat dishes.
The menu at Echye’s is very warming — although perhaps lacking the finesse and sophistication of a three-starred modern French restaurant in the middle Paris, it certainly does have a homely feel (which, in my eyes, is a positive feature of this type of restaurant); reading it really made me feel that I was in for a taste of some seriously traditional Eritrean food. Right at the top is a section explaining some of the key flavours and components to the Eritrean cuisine–berbere, enjera and tesmi–followed by a list of native meat and vegetable dishes along with brief descriptions.
After placing our orders, we were brought a complimentary entrée to commence the meal. We were not expecting this at all, but it certainly started the night on a positive note. In fact, it was probably my favourite dish of the evening, having a really great texture and flavour.
Family is a central theme when it comes to mealtime in Eritrea, and this resonated throughout the night. Traditionally, a range of dishes will be presented on a low-standing table, around which people sit and feast on the food. Given that there were five of us, we decided to dine in true Eritrean style and order almost every meat dish, in addition to one of the vegetable dishes, and share them amongst each other. The first thing to arrive at the table after the entrée was the enjera (often spelled injera), which is a yeast-risen flatbread made from sorghum, with a somewhat sour taste (presumably because of the sourdough starter used). We were all a little shocked when it came to the table, never really having seen such an usual looking bread. It had a slightly purple tinge and a very spongy texture–it could almost have been some kind of sea creature from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean!
This unusual looking bread is typically used to pick up meats and vegetables, so there were no knives or forks in sight! Dishes are often placed in the centre of the table, and each person can pick at them with little pieces of torn enjera. The staff were also more than willing to provide us with additional enjera, completely free of charge.
One of the most popular dishes at Echye’s is the Zigni, a dish of tender berbere-spiced lamb stewed in a tomato based sauce. This was very tasty, and probably one of my favourite meat dishes of the night. It came served in a very majestic looking stone bowl placed atop a woven stand.
Another of the meat dishes was the goredgored, tender pan fried pieces of beef served with awaze. Awaze is a chili based sauce, and certainly gives a nice warm kick to the dish. Although very well received by most others at the table, I found this one to have a flavour that didn’t quite agree with my taste buds; I couldn’t figure out what the flavour was, but it was a little overpowering for me. Definitely worth a try for anyone looking to taste something different, though.
We also ate the tibsi/keyh, another spicy tomato based meat dish, and the vegetarian alicha, a dish of stewed potatoes, carrots, green beans, ginger, herbs and zucchini. The addition of turmeric gave this dish an intense and distinctive yellow colour. The waitress recommended the alicha to us as a balance against the spiciness of all our meat dishes, and it was a good recommendation indeed. The flavour was very subtle but pleasant, and the vegetables were cooked exactly how I like them. I would certainly order this again.
One of the more unique dishes was the kitfo, a raw minced meat dish served with tesmi and an array of spices. The kitfo was not unlike a more familiar steak tartare, however the meat was minced to a paste-like consistency rather than finely chopped. Although traditionally served rare, the waitress did ask us how we would like it cooked (presumably understanding that many people can’t stomach the thought of raw meat), however all of us at the table were happy to stick to the traditional Eritrean way of eating.
The kitfo was nice, and had quite a unique taste, however its intense punch made eating a lot of it difficult. It is probably a bit too much for one person, but is a perfect dish to share.
Overall we had a great night of trying something a bit different to the usual European food. Although there are some dishes and flavours that may challenge the unfamiliar taste buds, Echye’s restaurant is certainly a good location for anybody wanting to expand their culinary experiences. What’s more, it felt like we were sitting in the dining room of an Eritrean family, as they brought out dishes prepared for a usual weeknight meal. As we were eating the meat dishes, one of the waitresses even brought out a small version of another of the vegetable dishes for us to try, unexpectedly and completely free of charge. It is the next best thing to actually going to Eritrea and spending time with a local family to experience this style of African cooking. I wish all the best to Echye and her family, and I hope more restaurants like it open in the future and bring a little bit of the outside world to Perth.
Thank you to Simret, another of Echye’s children, for providing some of the background information on the restaurant.