When you first enter Axum, you might be surprised to hear reggae or ska, and be greeted by a flag in the Rastafarian colours. Wrong shop? Then you look to your left, see a familiar face on the wall, and remember the link: Haile Selassie, alias Ras Tafari, alias The Negus (king) of Ethiopia. By the time you meet the owner, Nenu Negus, it all makes sense.
Axum is an Ethiopian restaurant-bar in the Europa-Mura district of Shinsaibashi, about a five-minute walk from the station.We sat at the bar, which is well-stocked, and Nenu poured us a South African Milk Stout (¥700), a Guinness-like concoction, and chatted with us.
Nenu has been running Axum for nearly four years. From 5 to 11:30, it’s an Ethiopian restaurant. From then until closing time (that is, when everyone goes home), it’s a bar. The clientele is a mix of Japanese,Western, and African customers, plus the occasional visit from one of the seven other Ethiopians in Kansai.
Nenu showed us a mosob, a sort of combination table and serving tray with a conical lid, made of woven grass (you can be served a traditional set menu in this –minimum two people, ¥1700 each–, if you make a reservation beforehand). When meals are prepared in Ethiopia, injera, an absorbant fermented pancake with a rye-bread taste, is unrolled in the bowl of the mosub, and the day’s main dish, usually stew and vegetables in sauce, is poured into the middle of the injera. Finally,the conical lid is placed over it all and it’s carried to the dining room.
Injera is to Ethiopian cuisine as rice is to Japanese food: indispensable. Traditionally,it serves as both plate and eating utensil,which brings us to how to eat Ethiopian food. You’ll see a few forks on the tables at Axum, but be warned that those are for salads only! Nenu is polite but firm about this: Ethiopian table manners are the rule at his shop. Food is eaten with the right hand only (not easy at first for a lefty like myself), by wrapping or scooping it up with the injera. A serving spoon is conceded to ladle your food onto your plate (another concession): after that, you’re on your own.
What gives Ethiopian food its distinctive zing is a combination of spices known as berbere. Nenu imports all his main ingredients (including teff,the tiny grain used for making injera) directly from Ethiopia, as most of them are unobtainable in Japan.
Nenu is proud of his cook, Ms. Belaynesh, who worked for many years at the Ethiopian Embassy in Tokyo. She still gets summoned to Tokyo from time to time for special events, and unfortunately the night we visited was one of those nights. Luckily, she’d prepared something in advance, so we got to taste one of her best dishes: doro-wot, a spicy chicken stew (¥980), with sauteed onions, ginger and a boiled egg.
I must confess that taste-wise I didn’t know what to expect from Ethiopian food. The first mouthful of chicken and sauce mixed with the rye taste of the injera (served in rolled-up strips on the side in lieu of cutlery) to give a strong, complex combination of tastes. Unlike some well-curried Indian food, berbere (which gives the stew a distinctive reddish tint) gives your palate a bit of a head start and lets you enjoy the taste of your meal before the spiciness catches up a few seconds later. Because doro-wot is stew, slowly simmered, it’s a rich, filling – and very nutritious – meal.
Axum also features a vegetarian menu: the vegetables in sauce,atakilt (¥880), and lentil soup, atr kik (¥880), are especially popular. It also goes well with the Milk Stout, and they all go very well indeed with the reggae!
Marusei Bldg, 5F
1-17-15 Higashi-Shinsaibashi, Chuo-ku