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Places and Faces: Kokeb Edition

Figure 1: The outside of Kokeb. Photo taken by Zakary Hansen.

Staff writer Malachy McWilliams reviews his trip to “Kokeb Ethiopian Cuisine” and shares his experience with their owner, Geti.

The cycle route from my Holloway headquarters to uni takes me down Caledonian “The Cally” Road, southbound past King’s Cross. When I first started taking this route, I thought my Ray Beri sunnies were playing tricks on my eyes, a bit like they do with the traffic light colours when I am late, because all I could see were Ethiopian stores, cafes, and restaurants. Blinking and shops with the road name slipped into their titles were my only respite. Addis; Cally News; *blink* Merkato; Cally Café; *blink* Agelgil; Cally Pets; *big blink* ETHIOPIAN COFFEE; Callay Pound Plus. All the way down The Cally. Were it not for the Bozza bikes and yutes on e-scoots dashing past I could have been in Addis Ababa itself.

After getting to know my new ends further, it became apparent such abundance transcends said road, with Ethiopian joints lurking around every corner of Islington from The Cally to just about Ally Pally, teasing and tempting with their exotic smells, enchanting décor, and easygoingness. As a matter of fact, within a two-kilometre radius of the sofa I am typing this from, there are more Ethiopian restaurants than there are Prets, Greggs, and tube stations combined. Suffice to say, my spicy senses were tingling; tongue and tummy curiosity well and truly piqued and with the tip-off from fellow N7ers of a hidden gem within spitting distance, I set about digging up and digging into a bit of Ethiopia.

Tucked away, slightly off the beaten snack, in a housing estate between HMP Pentonville and the London School of Massage, lies the humble, cosy, and long-standing Ethiopian food stop, “Kokeb”. According to Yelper “Meatand2veg”, this place has “some of the most tastiest, authenticest and reasonabliest priced Ethiopian cuisine in the whole of London”, feeding loyal locals and travelling tastebuds since doors opened at the turn of the millenniyum. Meaning “the star that sheds light” in Amharic, “Kokeb” was founded by Getenesh, or Geti (pictured) who, just like her food, is vibrant, spicy, seasoned, and twenty-three years after opening is very much still the star of the show, shedding bright smiles and food that is out of this world. Impressively, she does all of this on her own. As well as a wife, mother, and independent businesswoman, Geti is the waiter, front of house, back of house, chef, sous-chef, chef de partie, and life and soul of de partie. It is truly amazing how she does this day in, day out, but I am still waiting for the act to slip up, for all three Geteneshes to bring out the food at once, for her third and fourth hands to slide out from under her sleeves, or for a little French rat to pop out from under her headscarf.

Now, don’t be intimidated by all the unfamiliar dish names and how it all works, Mrs Kokeb will be right by your side to guide your safe passage to flavourtown: first-class, one-way, and no lengthy stopover in Doncaster. First, you’ll be asked if you’ve eaten Ethiopian before and the golden three questions: “how hungry are you?”, “do you eat meat?” and “can you handle spice?”. On my most recent visit with three buds (and plenty of taste buds), we took the vegetarian super combination, consisting of ye-misir key (stewed lentils) wot, ye-alicha kik (stewed chickpeas) wot fosolia (green beans) and carrot, the spinach dish, and the doro (chicken) wot. “Wot’s wot?” Wot is an Ethiopian sauce with berbere spicing, a mix of twenty-two different spices such as chilli, coriander, garlic, ginger and holy basil, the doro part: chicken. When you bite the doro wot, the doro wot bites back in the phwoarest of fashions. Our platter was seriously scrantastic and more than enough for four hungry students with empty fridges and bellies, but you can also opt to wrap your chops around the likes of lentil soups, light yoghurt, and cucumber salads; fresh and vibrant veggie dishes of beans, greens and legumes, or seasoned, sautéed and a little bit naughtée lamb, beef, and chicken dishes as well. For any other razor-sharp diners, you might clock the sheer amount of veggie and vegan options on the menu. This is due to the many fasting seasons throughout the year as part of Coptic Orthodox Christianity, which the majority of Ethiopians follow, fasting meat, dairy and eggs for up to two-thirds of the year. My two pence is this is what makes Ethiopian food some of the most flavourful I have ever eaten: not relying on meat for flavour and getting the most out of vegetables, beans and the copious amount of spices and herbs at hand.

All the mains come dolloped like a yummy Dulux colour chart on injera; a soft and spongy pancake made from fermented flour, the bedrock of Ethiopian cuisine. You tear bits off this great big edible plate and use it to scoop up the mound of food and JCB it into your gob. But be sure to wash those grubby Piccadilly line hands though as you’ll be eating with what Geti coins “your natural fork”, but fear not, the soups come with a real spoon! Now you’re thinking, “what am I gonna wash all this down with?”. Well, despite this not being a BYOB, you can certainly Be Your Own Boss with the bebidas on offer: fresh mango nectar or an authentic Ethiopian nectar of the golden fizzy kind called Habesha. Or if you need a caffeinated hand fighting the post-dinner dip, author recommends trying the renowned Ethiopian coffee.

Figure 2: A plate of food from “Kokeb”. ye-misir key wot (bottom right), ye-alicha kik wot (top left) fosolia and carrot (top centre
right), the spinach dish (middle right), and the doro wot (bottom left), all served on injera.

However, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth which wasn’t the injera, berbere, or Ethiopian coffee. Nae, nothing to do with the sumptuous repast we had just polished off. After noticing a lack of fellow Kokebers, I asked Geti if she had been putting poison in her food, or maybe she had just cleared the floor for the press exclusive. It was no shock that both got a swift “no”, but even less of a shock she admitted customers had massively dropped since the pandemic and that, in her twenty-three years of being open, this was the emptiest she had seen her restaurant. Although, her optimism of “sometimes it is full, sometimes it is less full” was admirable. But this is a sad reality for many small businesses alike, the hospitality industry has yet to recover from the pandemic, with one-seventh of London’s restaurants shutting up shop for good since 2020, according to the Financial Times. Now, restaurants, pubs, clubs, and everything in between are being smashed to smithereens by the current cost-of-living crisis, where inflation hit a 41-year high in October just gone and the increase in energy prices has long surpassed a three-figure percentage increase. Amongst the impact on small businesses and swathes of the population from the poorest to the elderly, countless more businesses will be forced to follow suit and shut up shop. This would be disastrous for the Ethiopian community in the UK.

The importance of the Ethiopian eatery cannot be understated. Leo from the King’s College London East African Society explained the power these Ethiopian cafes and restaurants had for helping both new Ethiopians to the UK and those who have been here for yonks to socialise, reminisce, and settle. I have been told nothing is more important for this than the Buna coffee ceremony, where people get together, incense is burned, and coffee is brewed then served and this is repeated twice more, with stories, memories, and gossip flowing even more than coffee. In his fascinating and touching journal article, “It’s as if you are dropped from the moon”, Dr David Palmer explains how this ceremony helps loneliness and mental well-being for many in the Ethiopian community in the UK, where mental health can be less openly spoken about and embraced, yet many suffer from the effects of moving to a new and unfamiliar place, often separated from family and friends.

Now, belts can only be tightened so much before a buckle pops off making you a prime target for a good de-kegging. Avoid this by taking a trip to “Kokeb” and loosening that belt a tad, popping a cuttla buttons open and kickin’ your feet back, but do buckle in for some major flavours. If you feel a slight thump-thump, thump-thump on your visit, it is likely to be your massive heart-on for the wholesomeness of “Kokeb”, whilst the meal will undoubtedly lead to a berbere-induced foodgasm, all whilst you leave the door not too much further into your overdraft and with a resounding sense of postwot clarity. You’d be a certified doofus to leave this one off your London dish list and if I thought this was the case I’d be writing for Pi Media. So, if you want to be more cultured than a mouldy petri-dish go on and take some mates to “Kokeb” and make it a brokeb, try the Ethiopian coffee and make it a hot cuppa joekeb, just make sure you gokeb!

Figure 3: Serving authentic Ethiopian cuisine and great big smiles since ’99. Malachy (right) pictured with Getenesh (left), the
owner of “Kokeb”.

Price: £34.50, for four (excluding drinks).

Menu: Available here.

Location: 45 Roman Way, London N7 8XF

Ethiopian proverb: “A good conversation is better than a good bed”.

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