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Published: 3 January 2008
African 'celebrity' chef Tsige Haile at the Zigni House Eritrean restaurant in Essex Road, Islington
African ‘celebrity’ chef Tsige Haile at the Zigni House Eritrean restaurant in Essex Road, Islington
A hands-on approach to Africa

Eritrea may be a country largely unfamiliar to most of us, but its traditional cuisine provides a cultural challenge worth meeting, writes Jamie Welham

MOST people would struggle to point to Eritrea on the map, but that hasn’t stopped the proud African country boasting a cuisine to please even the most fastidious of foodies.
Nestled among the curry houses and off-licences of Essex Road, Zigni House lifts the forgettable strip from its three-for-a-pound image – a little piece of exotica in the heart of Islington.
Started by an iron lady of sorts, Tsige Haile, the restaurant is a fairytale story. When the war-torn country descended into yet another conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia where she lived, Tsige was stripped of her business and her husband was thrown behind bars. Fearing for her life, she sought a better life in London, with her 15-year-old son in tow.
“I didn’t have any money when I came and I couldn’t speak any English,” said Tsige. “It was difficult especially not being allowed to work. Eventually we got asylum because two of my children were already here and we would have been killed if we went back. I went to college and did a cookery course because I was quite well known back home for cooking.”
“Quite well known,” as Tsige so modestly puts it, is an understatement of epic proportions. She published two cookery books and was akin to a celebrity chef – something that has no doubt helped her prospects in these more unfamiliar surroundings.
“We knew there was probably a market for it because there is nothing else like it,” said Tsige.
“There were a few ­other Eritrean places, but they were mainly in south London.
“Instead of being known for famine and disease, we wanted to sell our country’s culture.”
Despite the cookbooks and more than 1,000 recipes – 16 years’ worth of toil and culinary alchemy – the indomitable Tsige had never run a restaurant. But three years after opening, Zigni House is a food Mecca – loved by Angel-cool hunters and locals alike.
For the uninitiated, Eritrean food can pose something of a psychological obstacle. Those with delicate sensibilities or people who share Victorian eating values must approach the table with an open mind. Free yourselves from the handmaiden of knives and forks and discover the joys of using your hands.
As Tsige says – it’s a lot more sociable.
“We do wash our hands first,” she said, laughing.
“It’s based on our ­traditional way of eating and 99.9 per cent of the menu is exactly what we eat at home.
“If you think about it, it’s not that different from any other country – we all sit down together at a table and share food.”
Throwing out the rulebook is certainly a liberating experience, but are there any concessions to the unadventurous western palate?
“Not really,” said Tsige, “although we do serve rice as well as the flatbread because some people don’t like it. We change a couple of dishes now and then and the food can be as spicy as people like, but authenticity is key.”
The food is colourful and tasty – a favourite is the mixture of meats, cream, goat’s cheese and vegetables served in mini food parcels on a bed of sweet flatbread.
To round it off, sample zesty Eritrean coffee – an assault well worth inflicting on your taste buds.

* Zigni House, 330 Essex Road, N1.
Open daily. Bookings: 020 7226 7418

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