When the main component of your meal also serves as plate and spoon, it had better be tasty. And Harrar, an Ethiopian restaurant on the shop-and-restaurant-lined Village Plaza of South Orange, has its traditional sourdough flatbread, known as injera, down to a fine art.
The teff-based flatbread (teff is a high-fiber, high-iron, tiny grain harvested from an annual grass native to the northeast African highlands), is similar in texture but not ingredients to the Southern Indian dosa, a pancake which also goes through a fermentation process, and a labor-intensive grinding preceding it.
Harrar’s injera was light, fluffy, and hit all the right notes in terms of flavor and piquancy. Indeed, it’s quite simple to know if the batter isn’t quite right, for a sour belly could be your post-meal companion (I should know, having eaten enough overfermented injera, and dosa, and suffered the aftermath).
Harrar has been open for five years. Its decor is a bit more modest than that of Mesob, its glitzier counterpart in Montclair, but what it lacks in glamor, it makes up for with heart.
The dining room of Harrar, named for the city in Eastern Ethiopia which is known for its distinctive coffee, is cosy in its earthy tones, with paintings, wall hangings, upholstery and artifacts from Ethiopia.
At the center of the room is a table with coffee pots and other implements which are an instant lure for children and curious adults but aren’t meant as playthings. This is the setup for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony that Harrar holds every Friday and Saturday in the late afternoon, which the general public is welcome to participate in at no charge.
A visit to South Orange recently, which included a browse at the prolifically stocked Garden of Eden Marketplace wherein one may find a plethora of culinary delights ordinary or exotic, warranted a pit stop at Harrar for lunch.
As it was a scorcher of a day, my lunch companion and I started with an Ethiopian spiced ice tea, welcomingly cold, steeped in spices including green cardamom and cloves and aromatic with cinnamon.
For an appetizer, we picked sambousa, little fried pastry triangles stuffed with spinach and cheese. These were spicy and very morish indeed, a bit like spanakopita with added chilis.
For a main course, we split an assa tibs (tibs refers to a sauteed dish, wat refers to stews). This was salmon cooked with onions, garlic, lemon juice, tomatoes and Abesha spices. Two portions of the salmon were separated by a perfectly sauteed onion and spinach side dish that was invitingly green and still hot off the pan.
What else to try:
The lamb or beef sega wot, or the very popular beyayenetu, a combination of vegetables such as collard greens, cabbage, potatoes, lentils and split peas served on injera. Assa (dryish curries) of shrimp, catfish and salmon – which are sauteed with onions, tomatoes and berbere (a mix of 20 different spices). And don’t leave without trying the portobello mushroom dish known as ingudai tibs.
Following the restaurant visit, Baristanet chatted with Terence Richard, 48, who owns the restaurant with his wife Lulit Mamo, 39.
When did you open Harrar?
We started the cafe in July of 2006 and the main restaurant in September 2006. We serve Ethiopian cuisine and a few American dishes, too – my background is in catering American food.
Have you eaten at Montclair’s Mesob, a possible competitor?
Yes, but my wife put a stop to it! (Joke) We know the owners, of course.
How did you meet your wife?
I was walking by her family’s cafe as I was about to pay my insurance – it was called Harrar Coffee and Tea House – and she caught my eye! I paid, and came back to see what the cuisine was like. We struck up a conversation and one thing led to another. I found out her family wanted to sell the business. Meanwhile, I had a catering business in Piscataway, NJ, the lease of which was coming up, so I agreed to rent the back of Harrar while I decided whether I wanted to buy or not. Lulit was supposed to teach me to cook the Ethiopian dishes (I’m American) for six months, and then we were supposed to make the exchange. But she never wrote the recipes down (still hasn’t) and it became a partnership – in marriage and business.
It was a traditional Ethiopian wedding, held in Newark Club. It was a wonderful experience. We started out at her sister’s house, where her male friends and mine took on the role of warriors. They escorted me to her house to stage a ‘break in’ and ‘capture’ the bride-to-be. Sounds strange but it was quite a moving experience for me!
We have a four year old son and four-month-old twins, a girl and a boy.
Did you make any changes to the coffee and tea house?
I decided to put the Ethiopian food in front, and changed the focus away from just tea and coffee.
How’s Harrar doing?
Very well. We have a faithful following. All the old crowd came back, and people in South Orange encouraged us to move here from the original location in West Orange – it’s more cosmopolitan here. A lot of our customers keep coming back, some from quite far away.
Anything new cooking? How far away do you cater food?
We are planning on supplying food at the Baird weekly outdoor music festival, which is on every Wednesday in South Orange at Floods Hill. We do cater outside of South Orange, as far as South Carolina for big events. And we include all sorts of cuisines.
What are the regular Ethiopian seasonings?
Garlic, fenugreek, cardamom, cinnamon, and berbere is the main seasoning, which is a mix of 20 different spices including cayenne, so there’s a bit of heat. We also use rosemary and oregano here.
Is shrimp and salmon typical in Ethiopia?
No! But done Ethiopian-style, they go down well here. Also the mushroom tibs, ingudai, aren’t typical. We started offering it after my sister-in-law cooked it for us. I’ve been told that in Ethiopia, mushrooms are considered rubbish and no one would eat it!
11 Village Plaza
South Orange, NJ 07079