Home-style Ethiopian cooking in Töölö.

LUNCHEON experiences are different for everyone. But when you come face to face with the cooking that you’ve been missing from home, well, it brings an emotional rollercoaster of both pleasure and melancholy. It’s with this food that one can find oneself immersed in an exciting mood reminiscing the good old days where you’re able to easily find such delights at home with the comfort of your families and loved ones.

I experience these contrasting emotions when I pay a visit to Queen Sheba restaurant, a new Ethiopian restaurant that opened its doors for ethnic food enthusiast in April this year. Owned by Ethiopian chef Helen Yohannes and her husband Samuel Assefa, the restaurant located in Helsinki’s Mechelininkatu offers its customers an authentic Ethiopian culinary experience. Elucidating why they choose to name the only Ethiopian restaurant in town, Yohannes states, “The name explains who I am, my identity and religion”. As legend has it, the legitimate kings of Ethiopia descended from Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia (500BC) and King Solomon of Israel, thus, the queen has a significant role in Ethiopian history and culture.

Designed from head to toe with traditional materials, the restaurant greets its customers with tales of Ethiopian handicrafts and craftsmanship, which use cotton and leather products and marvellous woodcraft, reminding me of the typical cultural restaurant milieu in my hometown Addis Ababa. What’s more moving and emblematic is the epic Ethiopian classical music playing all the time. Am I homesick? I don’t know but I was totally not feeling like I was in Finland – the music consumes my attention for a moment and even makes me forget to order my food.

• Ethiopian cuisine characteristically consists of spicy vegetables and meat dishes, usually made with wot sauce.

• Ethiopian cuisine contains many dishes that are vegetarian thanks to numerous fasting seasons per year. This has also led Ethiopian cooks to develop a rich array of cooking oil sources. Besides sesame and safflower, Ethiopian cuisine also uses nug (also spelled noog, known also as niger seed).

• After every meal a coffee ceremony is enacted and coffee is drunk.

• Injera, a large sourdough flatbread, which is about 50 centimetres (20 inches) in diameter is made of fermented teff flour.

• Ethiopians eat with their hands, using pieces of injera to pick up bites of entrées and side dishes.

• Utensils are rarely used with Ethiopian cuisine.

• A typical snack would be baked small pieces of bread called dabo kollo or local grains called kollo.

Sheba Special Tibs, definitely a delightful pick!

Ethiopian culinary tradition mixes a diet of characteristically spicy, meaty dishes and vegan cooking. Obviously I’m happy to be greeted by a list of my all time favourite foods. The menu covers the most common starters in Ethiopia. The price is reasonable, ranging from €3.50 to €4.90, including such dishes as Dabo: fresh Ethiopian bread served with hot and spicy Awaze dip.

Desiring only a main dish, I ask the tall Finnish waiter clad in a white shirt and black pants to bring me Sheba Special Tibs (€13.90): lamb seasoned with Sheba’s mixture of spices and fried with onion, rosemary and garlic. While the waiters clothes were far more Western than found in restaurants back home, Yohannes informs that they often come out in traditional attire; even at times attempting to represent the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

It takes ten minutes to bring my favourite fried lamb with injera, a sourdough flatbread made of fermented gluten free teff flour. Injera sounds a bit exotic for people not familiar with Ethiopian cuisine but it’s the darling and nucleus of Ethiopian cuisine. Every meal is served with injera and you should tear off bite-sized pieces of it by hand and use it to eat your particular dish with, in place of cutlery.

“We encourage our customers to use their hands the Ethiopian way,” Yohannes states. “We tell them about our culture, the food and how they can eat using injera. They’re happy to try and we’re proud everyday.” For the less adventurous, however, utensils are also available on the table. Devoted to maintaining authenticity in her restaurant, Yohannes has finished the legal processes to import injera straight from Addis and intends to do so for the local drinks tej and tella, in the future. Right now, the restaurant offers variety of wine and beer.

All of the spices are original imports from Ethiopia. Yohannes prepares her own recipes and is determined not to mix with others’ spices or traditions. “This is why it took us ten years to open the restaurant,” Yohannes explains. “I want to introduce my authentic culinary culture to Finns. This is an Ethiopian restaurant and it should remain typical.” Not only does it smell like home here but it also tastes like it too.

Ravintola Saba
Mechelininkatu 8, Helsinki
Tue-Thu: 11:00-15.30 & 17.30-22:00
Fri: 11:00-15.30 & 17.30-23.00 
Sat: 13:00-23:00 
Sun: 13:00-22:00 
Reservations required 
tel. 050 433 4546

Not mixing spices, traditions!

Eating is a family affair in Ethiopia; people sit around a circular table and eat together from a big plate called teri. Queen Sheba offers such services for those who are familiar with this tradition. This could be one reason why the restaurant’s buffet is popular among Finns. The buffet, which mixes vegan and non-vegan foods duly selected by the diners, is well liked for birthday parties, polttarit (bachelor parties) and when a groups of at least 10 people seek the service. Prices vary depending on the selection of foods and number of people in the group.

Towards the end of your dining experience, keep in mind that Ethiopian food without a coffee ceremony is almost unheard of. Ethiopian coffee is very strong, similar to the taste of a European espresso. After every meal it’s customary to conduct a coffee ceremony that comes in a small pot and cup, along with kolo, a sort of popcorn, and incense burning close to you. Except for the incense, Queen Sheba has it all. I drink the coffee I love and eat the kolo fervently, with the classical music that triggered my homeland sentiment ringing in my ears and keeping me in high spirits on my return journey back to my Finnish home.

Text and images Feven Chane Abega.