In a land of exotic food like injera, wat, shiro and firfir, it’s surprising to find a restaurant where the British staple of Shepherd’s Pie is the talk of the town.
That town is Lalibela in rural Ethiopia, famous for its churches carved into solid rock in the 12th century. The Ben Abeba restaurant is a far newer tourist attraction, adding unusual twists to local fare.
Ben Abeba is co-owned by retired Scottish teacher Susan Aitchison and taxi driver Habtamu Baye, who met when Aitchison taught at a school in a tiny village.
Aitchison puts the whole thing down to “one glass of wine too many”, which saw her offering to teach in Ethiopia when a friend of hers set up a school to help a poor community.
“I was 57 and close to retirement, and when my friend was showing me pictures and filling my wine glass, I heard myself say: ‘Do you need any help?’” she laughs.
Aitchison had taught catering and home economics in Scotland, so getting involved was a natural next step when Baye (who drove her to school each day) told her of his dream to open a restaurant. Together they searched the district’s stunning mountains until they found the ideal location with views that roll on forever.
Two young architects from Addis Ababa designed the oddly-shaped restaurant to represent Abuna Yosef, Ethiopia’s highest mountain. It’s a maze of circles and pathways, with the kitchen and some dining areas cut into the mountainside in true Lalibela style. During the two years it took to build the restaurant, thousands of trees were planted to grow fruits and coffee beans for the venue, which now employs almost 50 people.
Three women who supervise the kitchen had their knowledge of popular Ethiopian dishes extended through the Scottish influence.
“We’re very limited with the ingredients because we source everything locally, so we do the best we can with what we have, and different dishes have developed along the way,” Aitchison says.
The food is exciting and different, with goat burgers, lentil soup, Ethiopian spiced Shepherd’s Pie, and traditional tej, or honey wine.
Sixteen bedrooms are being added to offer accommodation from September 2018.
For more information, visit www.benabeba.com