We were on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia and spent three days in Lalibela, the centre of the underground churches. What an experience only made even better by a visit to Ben Ababa restaurant run by former schoolteacher Susan Aitchison, 68, who opened this lavish restaurant in Lalibela, Ethiopia, seven years ago.
Aitchison gets by with basic Amharic, the language commonly spoken in northern Ethiopia, and can be found cheerily greeting patrons who flock to her eatery, Ben Abeba, for sunset views and international cuisine. “They are the loveliest, friendliest people, and it is my privilege to have been accepted to live here,” she says.
The restaurant gets its name from a combination of the Gaelic word for mountain (ben) and the Amharic word for flower (Abeba). It caters to locals and westerners, sometimes mixing the cuisines. Their version of shepherd’s pie with Shiro, a spicy Ethiopian chickpea stew, is a big hit. Ethiopian dishes start with customary injera, a teff flour flatbread, topped with a selection of vegetarian dishes, or a meat stew known as tibs.
Also on the menu are British staples such as bubble and squeak, as well as omelettes and chips.The restaurant has 50 full-time employees, and functions as a training platform for young locals looking to break into the industry – an Ethiopian take on Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant in London, if you will.
After a friendly welcome Susan and a chat, we were guided to our table and then most of us tucked into the Shepherds Pie, which is the dish they are famous for. Not sure if any mutton came anywhere near the pie but the meat was tender. Some of us had a more spicy version for another 25p. Some of the fellow pilgrims also had the injera, a type of pancake that looks a bit like brown foam rubber. Not to my liking.
The drinks were Ethiopian wine – the red Rift Valley Merlot at about £10 a bottle was delicious. Some of us had the local Ethiopian Beer tella or an Ambo a bit like Alka Seltzer
The desserts were mainly local fruits with the wonderful Ethiopian honey which is straight from the hive and the taste varies depending on where you are.
Finally a coffee ceremony where they roast the beans in front of you grinding the roasted beans to make the coffee.
Oh, I forgot the views and situation of the restaurant are stunning.