Two countries make a tasty collision at Red Sea Cafe

Big-name gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that "the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star." Astronomers and NASA types might quibble, but to be honest, if it came to a godlike choice between Feenie's calamari sandwich and dark little masses light-years away, couldn't you personally survive with a few less specks in the universe? Picture the bleakness of life without slowly braised beef short ribs, pasta arrabbiata, or Solly's cinnamon buns. The question is, if a dish equals a pinprick of light, where does the discovery of a new cuisine rate in the scheme of things?

Europe and Asia are open cookbooks to most of us, but the vast continent of Africa remains unknown. All the more reason to welcome Vancouver's first (and, as far as I know, only) Eritrean restaurant. Its mom-and-pop owners Senait Tsegay and Ainalem Abraha have obviously been asked the question before, and at the Red Sea Café they answer it by bringing a map to your table. That's how we learned that Eritrea, population four million, is a small North African country on the Red Sea's west coast, adjacent to Ethiopia. The two nations' cuisines have a lot in common, so what you eat here tastes somewhat familiar, but with the inevitable nuances that come with being from a different country and culture.

Eritrean by birth, raised in Ethiopia, and cooking the food of both, Tsegay and Abraha have gone to considerable lengths to make their place feel like home. (The café has been open mere weeks, but many expat Eritreans have already found their way here.) On the lemon-yellow walls are paintings on goatskin of everyday scenes: a woman with a water vessel; a boy with a camel. Glass tops protect embroidered tablecloths and the posters that also depict Eritrean life. But it's what's centre stage in the front window that brings home the spirit, the sharing, of this cuisine: a tall multicoloured basketwork table called a mesob on which goes one of the trays stored under its conical lid. On the tray goes bread. On the bread go dollops of various dishes--red, green, yellow; colours from spice chests--and everyone sits around and pitches in, no forks allowed.

Pinching pieces of bread to wrap around morsels of food is how, as in other parts of Africa and Asia, you eat Eritrean fare. The bread is injera, that cool, tangy, pancakelike bread with squintillions of holes in it. (Fellow Brits: picture a crumpet that has fallen afoul of a steamroller.) Tsegay makes up to 100 every day on a very large Norwegian griddle using tiny-grained, iron-rich tef from California. The sharp piquancy is about as perfect a match as you can imagine for the big rumbling flavours of her dishes and their mother sauce, called berbere, a blend of chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and spices.

Berbere is only one component in dorho tsebhi (chicken stew, and once you know that begee means "lamb", you can figure out what begee tsebhi means). I fell hard for bottle-green hamli, its kale long-cooked with jalapeños, onions, and the garlic that plays up the mineral quality. Along with a bowl of cottage cheese, hamli arrived with two drumsticks stewed in a fiery mahogany sauce; it was one of the mounds in an assortment that lets you sample just about every vegetable dish on the small menu. Each is subtly different, although all draw from the same palette of flavourings. The result is complex, multilevelled tastes that contrast and complement each other: yellow peas, still with some texture to them so that they're almost nutty, called alicha; coral-red lentils called birsin; and an amiable alliance of cabbage and potatoes.

For bevvies, tall glass mugs of spiced tea go down nicely. This isn't photo-op fare all titivated up for the lens; it looks as though it came from a home kitchen, and it's served by the smiling and soft-voiced couple with the same pride and concern. I'm eager to try their alternatives to western breakfasts too, such as fitfit (pieces of injera mixed with onion and berbere) or that mixture of fava beans, jalapeño, onion, and tomato called foul, popular around the Middle East, here served with Portuguese buns. It all sounds tu'um: delicious.

No credit cards, so take cash. A bit over $10 a head should do it.


RED SEA CAFE 670 East Broadway, 604-873-3332. Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.