Photo by George Lloyd

Little Ethiopia: a taste of highland east Africa in Katsushika-ku

Yotsugi, a run of the mill neighbourhood on the east side of Tokyo has become home to a large number of Ethiopians in recent years. Well, large by Japanese standards. Ephrem Haile, owner of Yotsugi’s only Ethiopian restaurant, told me that there are at most 50 Ethiopians living in the neighbourhood. Still, that’s more than anywhere else in the city, and any sign of diversity is intriguing in such a homogenous city.

Ephrem Haile has lived and worked in Japan for over 15 years. He has become a familiar face on Japanese TV, having featured on a number of variety shows and documentaries. His latest gig is his biggest yet, starring alongside popular TV comedian Kazuyoshi Morita, aka Mr. Tamori, on the late-night variety show the Tamori Club. Apparently, the show is one of the longest running on Japanese TV. “I don't know whether it is down to luck or because our restaurant serves authentic Ethiopia cuisine, but since we opened, we’ve featured in close to 20 TV shows and media reports,” says Ephrem.

Photo by George Lloyd

“Since my wife Tibebe is the one who runs the restaurant, I’m usually open to offering a crash course in Ethiopian culture and history,” says Ephrem with a smile. He proceeds to explain the various Ethiopia Ge’ez manuscripts displayed on the walls to me. A fellow Ethiopian who’s dropped in for a bite to eat tells me that back in Addis Ababa, he was a deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox church and speaks Ge’ez, an ancient tongue only spoken by church officials.

Photo by George Lloyd

‘Little Ethiopia’ is popular with Ethiopians looking for a taste of home, but with the exception of weekends, most of the customers are Japanese people looking to try Ethiopian cuisine, which is quite a rarity in Japan. Most of the main dishes are priced at around Y1000, but I decide to go all-out and order the house speciality, a ginormous platter of meat dishes, served on a vast injera pancake.

Injera is the staple food of Ethiopia, a spongy flatbread made from the little-known grain, teff. It’s fermented for a couple of days, which lends injera its delicious, mildly sour taste. Injera is rich in iron and fibre, and as most dishes are served on an injera pancake, it functions as food, eating utensil and plate.

Photo by George Lloyd

Once I’ve eaten my injera ‘plate’, the meal is over and it’s time for coffee. The coffee plant originates in the highlands of Ethiopia. According to legend, the 9th-century goatherd Kaldi discovered the coffee plant after noticing the energizing effect it had on his goats. The story is probably apocryphal, but there’s no doubting the fact that Ethiopia still produces some of the best coffee beans in the world.

Serving coffee is quite a ritual and is invariably accompanied by incense, which fills the little restaurant with fragrant smoke. Peering through the haze, Ephrem tells me that he’s grateful for the help he’s received from his Japanese neighbours. His supervisors at his day-job at an oil-recycling company, which employs a number of Ethiopians, have been nothing but supportive.

Unfortunately, the immigration authorities have been less accommodating. Japan is famously inhospitable to asylum seekers and the processing of Ephrem’s claim for refugee status has been in limbo for over a decade. Still, he remains hopeful that he and his family will eventually win the right to remain in Japan, a country he has come to call home.

‘Little Ethiopia’ is open from 1800-2300 every day apart from Monday. The nearest station is Yotsugi, five minutes by train on the Keisei Oshiage line from Tokyo Skytree.

‘Little Ethiopia’, Higashiyotsugi 3-34-17, Katsushika-ku, Tokyo.

To make a reservation, call 03-6323-3983 (Japanese or English)

By - George Lloyd.