I knew it would be good when we were sat opposite Lula’s poetry library.
On a warm afternoon in early June, my friend and I resolved our fast-approaching-Prelims woes with dinner at Lula’s Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine restaurant on Park End Street. Quiet, softly broken from the relentless thrum of exam seasoned central Oxford, this was a welcome idyll.
Other than the practice of feeding your dining partner as a gesture of friendship, I had no knowledge of Ethiopian cuisine. We opened the door through the heavenly glow of refracted summer sun, greeted with a rumble of nondescript jazz and the familiar face of a local barista (who was probably less pleased to have been followed by parasitic students). We would later discuss how much of a blessing Lula’s is for Oxford’s vegans and non-students. Indeed, I’d much rather keep it a secret. Still, this welcome stood us newbies in good stead.
The waiter happily guided our ignorance through the menu. By his recommendation and willingness to cooperate with our student budget, we ended up with:
Habesha Hamli – Kale and potatoes cooked in olive oil with onions, garlic, and chilli.
Red lentils – Slow cooked in a rich sauce of caramelised onions, garlic, mixed spices and
Berbere (a particular spice mixture).
And an injera each.
The injera is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. It is a pancake-like flatbread made with traditionally just teff flour and water. Lula’s explains that “Brown tef is an ancient East African cereal grass that originated in Ethiopia circa 4000 BC to 1000 BC.” Though the injera is not complex, it is delicious. Its wonderful simplicity laughs at restaurants that need liquid nitrogen to distract from the food.
It was a filling meal but definitely left me wanting to taste more. The garlic – and this is a true garlic lover’s haven – made for rich fulfilment. The potatoes were perhaps aligned with the sag aloo dish with chest-kicking hotness. I could venture to compare the food to various dishes – lentils to dal, potatoes to sag aloo, injera to pancakes (celebrate pancake day with a trip to Lula’s) – but, if truth be told, Lula’s has its own, unparalleled jazzy cheekiness. It’s spicy where you least expect it.
And, in the spirit of such cheek, we were coaxed into trying the traditional honey wine. Lula’s offers sweet or dry; we went for sweet. Lula’s menu writes: “The production of wine in Ethiopia can be traced to the early centuries of the first millennium A.D. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, Tej is often homemade and served at Tej houses and for special occasions. Served in a flask-like carafe or bottle, called a berele.” I think this wine would be my highlight. It tastes remarkably like honey and its delicate gloopiness is, well, ethereal against the slosh of Fruity Red.
We ate at Lula’s in the week after Eritrean Independence Day. On the 24th of May, 1991, Eritrea reinstated independence after a 30-year war against the military regime of Ethiopia. I had thought about this while we ate and asked the head chef that day if it was something she had considered. But, as is embodied by the restaurant’s ethos, she insisted that the food was instead a celebration of the cultural – not political – partnership of the two countries.
After all, the Habesha Hamli we ate is a combination of Eritrean and Ethiopian. Hamli is the sauteed onions, garlic, and chilli; it comes from Eritrea originally. And Habesha, from the Habesha People, is an ethnic identifier which spans both Ethiopia and Eritrea.
It is also a venue for frequent jazz, poetry readings, and, in December 2023, a wonderful amalgamation of the two in the form of an evening of Lemn Sissay (check him out). The restaurant embodies cultural inclusion. It is forgiving of Western ignorance with explanations and histories of the cuisine in its menu. It is entirely vegan unless you opt for one of the separate meat dishes. And, after a glass of honey wine, you can still do some revision.