Summer may be less than scorching this year in Vancouver, but the city’s East African restaurants are sizzling with spicy, intricately layered dishes to delight our senses and show us a little heat.
African cuisine is packed with flavour, reflecting the diversity of herbs and spices that are native to each area. In East Africa, savoury blends such as berbere can contain up to a dozen spices, from paprika and chiles to turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, and ginger. The spicier blends contain capsaicin, which triggers the release of endorphins and tells your body to sweat a little (enough to help you cool down).
Here, portions are huge, meant to be shared with family or close friends. So, gather your loved ones and wash your hands for these East African feasts, which are all available for takeout or delivery. And should you feel comfortable dining in, the owners will personally welcome you warmly, with genuine African hospitality.
Harambe Ethiopian Restaurant
Celebrating 20 years at Commercial Drive and 6th Ave, Harambe Ethiopian Restaurant is best known for its combo platters of hearty stews served on a large piece of flatbread called injera. The spongy sourdough acts as both the serving platter and the utensil, split into pieces to scoop up mouthfuls of savoury stew.
A local favourite, Harambe’s Veggie Lovers combo is completely vegan and contains five stews, each with its own unique flavour profile. The yatekit alitcha is a savoury mix of sauteed, seasoned string beans, carrots, potatoes, and onions, where each ingredient complements the next to deliver a full-bodied taste. Tekil gomen is a steamed mix of sweet cabbage and carrots, while the gomen is boiled spinach that really holds the sharp flavor of garlic and onion. These come with two lentil stews—the earthy kik alicha wot is made from yellow split lentils and has the distinct yellow colour of turmeric, while the miser wot made from red lentils is hot and fiery thanks to berbere.
To provide a truly authentic flavour experience, owner Daniel Mekonnel imports his ingredients directly from Ethiopia. This ensures that the spice blends, like berbere, reach the right intensity of flavour and heat. The injera is also made with teff, a fine grain that is grown almost exclusively in Ethiopia and has recently gained a reputation as a “supergrain” thanks to its high nutritional content that rivals quinoa. Regular injera is made from a mixture of teff, sorghum, and barley. And if you’re avoiding gluten, rejoice! They also serve injera made entirely from teff that is gluten-free.
For some sweet refreshment, try the tej, Ethiopian honey wine. Unlike mead, tej is made with the leaves and branches of the gesho plant, a hops-like bittering agent that gives the wine a subtle sweetness and adds an earthy, herbal quality.
Besides the food, the paintings on the walls also come from Ethiopia—and are available for purchase. The proceeds support the artists, as well as sending them supplies that are not as easily accessible in Africa.
Arriving from Kenya with an engineering background, owner Kurshid Khan switched gears after finding out his credentials were not recognized in Canada. Taking traditional Kenyan recipes and giving them a Canadian twist, his shift into the restaurant business proved a success; Simba’s Grill (recently relocated to Boundary and Laurel Street in Burnaby), has remained a popular Vancouver destination for fusion African food for more than 20 years.
One of Khan’s most popular creations is Simba’s Chicken, an entire cornish game hen deep-fried and tossed in house-made spicy pili pili sauce. Seven different sauces accompany the chicken, which can be mixed and matched for a different flavour in every bite. Four of the sauces increase the heat—the slightly sweet blueberry hot sauce is the least spicy, the mango hot sauce is slightly tart, the Simba’s sauce has a ton of savoury flavour, and the surprisingly creamy habanero sauce packs the most heat. If hot and spicy isn’t for you, you can mix one of the hot sauces with either the coconut or yogurt sauce to add a bit of cooling flavour. Save some of the sweet and sour tamarind sauce for your fries.
Another favourite is the chicken surwa, a chicken curry similar to butter chicken that uses cream instead of butter. The result is a comforting stew with flavour that softly lingers after each tender bite. Make sure to pour the curry over some of the turmeric-infused rice to bring out the flavour even more.
If you’re in the mood for something grilled, you can’t go wrong with the kuku choma, Kenyan-style BBQ chicken. Finish off your meal with a Lamu cheesecake, a sweet slice of cheesecake topped with freshly made mango syrup with bits of pistachio and almond sprinkled on top.
Taking its name from the Swahili word for “Hello!”, Jambo Grill at Kingsway and McKinnon welcomes guests with a distinctive ambience that recreates a cool summer sunset. Running the restaurant has been a family affair for the last 15 years—Jamil Mawani handles the design and grows fresh herbs for the restaurant, his mom manages the kitchen and finances, and his dad runs the front of house.
Their pili pili masala mogo (spicy cassava fries) is a popular Ugandan snack. The cassava is boiled, cut, deep-fried, and then sauteed in house-made pepper sauce. A coating of spices including curry and turmeric adds an appetizing breaded texture. The neutral, earthy taste of the cassava really allows the zesty flavours of the hot sauce to come through.
While the family is from Uganda, they also have roots in India. Some items on the menu, including the kuku paka, chicken in coconut curry, is an African dish cooked in Indian Gujarati style. The chicken is grilled separately, which adds smokiness once it is added to the curry. The egg and potatoes are also boiled separately, then all the ingredients are sauteed in the smooth, creamy curry sauce, just long enough to maintain their firm, tender textures. The dish is best served over rice, but make sure to order some naan, fresh from the in-house tandoori oven, to scoop every last drop.
On a particularly hot day, cool down with a refreshing plate of bhel puri, a popular Indian street food made with puffed rice, tomatoes, potatoes, chips, onions, peanuts, and cilantro, tossed in chutney and tamarind sauce. Fresh and spicy, sweet and salty, crunchy and tender—the dish is a delightful mix for both the eyes and the tastebuds. Complete your meal with a glass of Mombasa iced tea, with its subtle mango taste followed by the cooling sensation of mint.
Axum Ethiopian Restaurant
Walking into Axum Ethiopian Restaurant at Hastings and Clark is like stepping into a portal into Africa: everything you see from the Somali-style decor to the furniture has been imported from East Africa. From there, Alem Berhe and his wife have been serving Vancouverites a taste of Ethiopian cuisine for the last 10 years.
Each entree is presented on a cast-iron plate before being poured onto a big piece of injera. This adds a bit of smokiness to the entrees like the popular yebeg tibs wot, spicy lamb stew. Tender pieces of lamb are sauteed in a mixture of hot sauce, vegetables, herbs and spices. Each bite is a bit tangy from the tomato, a bit sweet from the onions, and has the distinctive warm sensation that comes from the spicy berbere.
Mushroom fans should not miss out on the inguday tibs, chopped mushrooms with tomatoes, onion, garlic, pepper, and herbs. The fresh, earthy, umami flavour of the mushrooms pops out of the sauce and might leave you fighting for the last piece. If you have room for more, you will definitely fill up with the vegetarian combo—a hearty platter of four stews. Be sure to add the miser wot to your combo if you like your food hot.
If you happen to be dining in, try the cardamom cinnamon tea. The minty, spicy smell alone is soothing, and the tea tastes very similar to chai. You can also call in advance to book an African coffee ceremony. Green coffee beans are roasted on the spot, then immediately ground up for a strong, espresso-like coffee. A great way for a small group to experience something new together and get your caffeine fix for the day, without leaving the city.
This story from our archives was first published Aug 20, 2020. Read more about great Vancouver restaurants in Food and Drink.