Eritrean-Ethiopian cuisine is unfamiliar to most Albertans. And yet the culinary treasures of Northeast Africa can be enjoyed simply sampling the cuisine of Saviour’s Café and Bistro.
Operated by Solomon Debesay, an Eritrean ex-patriot who fled his country’s violent and abusive military regime, Saviour’s serves delicious authentic food that has undergone the test of time for generations.
Bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Red Sea, Eritrea’s culinary prowess lies in blending Africa’s full-bodied variety of spices with Europe’s more distinct subtle flavours.
In opening the St. Albert based café and bistro in November 2016, Debesay’s goal was to reach people of different cultures that would not normally dine at an Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurant, afraid the food might be too different or spicy for them. He hopes to attract a curious and steady clientele by allowing them to transition slowly into this centuries-old cuisine.
While the name Saviour’s Bistro and Café instantly springs to mind religious images, it has less to do with any one religion, than the long journey from Africa that brought Debesay to St. Albert.
“I was saved in the Sudan. I have been saved in Cairo. I was saved in Canada. People in Canada take their life for granted. But if you haven’t seen darkness, you can’t appreciate the light. In my country (Eritrea) there is killing, rape, the harvesting of organs. It is a big deal here. There, it is survival. I don’t know why I am so lucky,” said Debesay in a candid moment.
Debesay’s long journey to Canada requires some background information. Once part of the proud Kingdom of Aksun, present day Eritrea was colonized by Italy from 1889 to 1941. The colonization introduced the subtle culinary flavours of Italy’s more distant cultures.
During the Second World War British forces took over the region’s administration and by 1952, the United Nations established Eritrea as an autonomous region in Ethiopia.
In 1961 Ethiopia annexed Eritrea triggering a 30-year war. In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front won a war of independence that is still not fully resolved today.
One of the youngest countries in the world, Eritrea has morphed into one of the most secretive military states in the world with a diaspora of several million people.
In 1991 during the war for independence, Debesay was a student at an Ethiopian university studying library science.
“I went back home to serve. There was a shortage of teachers and I said, ‘OK, I will teach.’ I had 70 students in one class. We were overloaded, but we were doing from our hearts. The children and orphans needed us.”
Although a constitution was drawn up in 1997, it was never implemented. Citizens soon saw their one university closed and replaced by military colleges.
“At first we were extremely happy. We were waiting for a constitution, but it did not come. When they closed the university, 35 PhDs were fired.”
Eritreans’ hopes and ideals gradually evaporated as international media was shut out, military conscription became mandatory and indefinite, and the violation of human rights occurred daily.
Short-sighted economic policies, illegal imprisonment, religious restrictions and educational institutions that had become “ghost schools” created a booming market in human trafficking.
Eritrea could not provide a future for its citizens and Debesay carefully saved his money. He found a smuggler who drove him to the Sudanese border to meet with nomadic Arabs who would take him into Sudan.
“They came with pickup trucks. They were very careful. If the government catches them, they kill them.”
In Sudan, there was no help for a refugee; however, Debesay visited an engineer friend who helped him find work teaching English to young students.
“In Sudan, you have to bribe everyone. If you don’t bribe, you can’t leave.”
After greasing the necessary palms, he was booked for a flight to Cairo on a tourist visa. At Cairo’s airport, he was stopped for one hour while officials checked his credentials and another acquaintance vouched for him.
“I started teaching English to immigrants like me and to children and I was translating for immigrants.”
In between working assignments, Debesay would line up outside the Canadian Embassy with other hopefuls waiting to put in an immigration application.
After a six-month wait, he was granted a visa and arrived in Edmonton in March 2004. While most locals anticipated spring, “for me it was like minus 40 degrees. I was wearing a big jacket and gloves.”
“But I am extremely happy here. Canada is heaven. We have nothing to complain about. We have good food, good education, good health and freedom. People complain about Trudeau. In my country, if you talk about the president, they kill you.”
Employing his hard work ethic and carefully crafted resourcefulness, Debesay worked at a variety of jobs: glasscutter, warehouse worker and Mac’s store employee.
Just before opening Saviour’s, he also owned a small trucking company that made regular deliveries throughout the region. While making deliveries to St. Albert, he was inspired by the city’s ambiance to open a restaurant.
“It’s peaceful. You can’t compare it to anything. In the Mac’s store, my friend was held up. A robber came in and asked for $20. Here in St. Albert I never heard a bad word. I appreciate St. Albert people. They are so encouraging. Sometimes I am speechless.”
The ancient and delicious Eritrean-Ethiopian food served at Saviour’s on St. Anne Street is the ultimate sensory experience.
Beef and chicken entrees, cooked with onions, green peppers, tomatoes and assorted other vegetables are the menu mainstays.
“People think the food is hot, but it’s not. All the different spices make it flavourful and I am happy to regulate the spice.”
For foodie adventurers, Debesay cooks with berbere, an Eritrean-Ethiopian spice blend that uses chili powder as its base. Saviour’s kitchen is also fully stocked with garlic, ginger, cardamom, chickpea powder, oregano and dill among other spices.
What really makes Saviour’s cooking special is Debesay’s willingness to take the same dish and by sprinkling different quantities of spice, it becomes appealing to diverse palates.
Another distinctive feature of Eritrean-Ethiopian cuisine is the use of injera, a spongy flatbread that tastes similar to sourdough bread.
Injera is made from a little known cereal in North America called teff. The grains are ground into flour, fermented for 48 hours and made into injera. Traditional teff is rich in calcium and potassium and is suitable for gluten intolerant people.
At this point Debesay is still searching for a North American line of injera that is completely gluten free.
As in the Eritrean tradition, the main dish is served and injera is used to scoop up the meat and vegetables with the right hand. Never the left.
A typical meal ends with a coffee serving ceremony, a mark of friendship or respect and an excellent example of Eritrean hospitality.
Women dressed in traditional costumes of white with coloured woven borders, sit before a pan roasting the coffee beans. As the beans gradually turn black, a pungent smell fills the restaurant.
The beans are then ground and slowly stirred into a clay pot called a jebena, and the coffee, flavoured with ginger is poured into delicate little china cups. Usually three rounds are offered and the third is said to bestow a blessing.
While Saviour’s menu offers classic injera served with meat dishes and vegetarian specialties, it also incorporates Italian influences with panini sandwiches, pizza and 10 different offerings of slice cake from the Italian Bakery and Spinelli’s Italian Centre Shop.
“At home my mother and the housemaids would cook. But I have the passion and I have the love for good food.”