Writer Adolfo Perez-Gascon and photographer Enric Català sample the tastes of Ethiopia at Sara Ethiopian Restaurant.

As varied as Phnom Penh’s restaurant scene is, there is a region of the world glaringly unrepresented: Sub-Saharan Africa. That is until Sara and Berhanu, from Addis Ababa, decided to open Sara Restaurant and Coffee Shop four months ago as the capital’s first Ethiopian eatery.

The diner has already developed a faithful clientele among the city’s expats, with their exotic creations gaining ground more slowly among locals. Ethiopian cuisine being known for an array of animal product-free options – a result of a strict adherence to religious fasting practices in the African nation –, the restaurant has got many vegetarians and vegans raving.

Set in a small and unpretentious space, the minimalist decoration comes in the form of canvases depicting Ethiopian life and trinkets of traditional art.

Doro wat ($8) is their signature dish, a gravy-like, chicken stew where berbere – a reddish spice ubiquitous in Ethiopian cuisine — defines the flavour profile. It comes on a charmingly crude clay pot, with a chicken drumstick and hard-boiled egg floating in the hearty soup. It is intense and fragrant and, for palates less accustomed to the cuisine, perhaps reminiscent of North Indian curries.

Injera ($2 per serving), a sourdough flatbread, is served alongside the doro wat. Sara tells me the bread is a must in every Ethiopian meal, explaining is made out of teff, a plant that grows exclusively in Ethiopian highlands. She grabs a roll of flatbread, pinches a piece off, and uses it to scoop out some of the stew. I follow suit. Fluffy and sticky, its pungent aftertaste enhances the taste of the doro wat. A match made in heaven.

The next Ethiopian delicacy is tibs ($8), tender sliced beef marinated in a special blend of spices and garnished with sauteed vegetables. The dish comes on a tall clay pot, with an opening at the bottom for hot coals that keep the food irresistibly warm. Aromatic, the dish brings to mind North African flavors, with the meat spiced very similarly to Moroccan kebab.

The meat-veggie combo ($8) is a colorful amalgam of small dishes served on a compartmentalised plate with doro wat in the centre. Tibs, minchet abish, lusciously spiced lentil curries and an assortment of vegetable mini-dishes complete the platter.

In the meat-veggie combo, the minchet abish – minced beef garnished with onion and spiced pepper –  comes in two colours: green (spiced with berbere), and yellow (with curry powder). It hits a pleasant level of piquancy, leaving a nice tingling sensation in the tongue.

We cap off the evening in typical Ethiopian fashion, partaking in the customary coffee ceremony ($1 per cup). My hands wrapped around a cup of the strong brew, I share a few laughs with Sara and Berhanu, who not only cook exceptional food but also go to great lengths to guarantee their clients get the whole Ethiopian experience.

EO1 Street 172, Phnom Penh.
Tel. 070 363 041.
Open Monday to Friday, from 9am to 10pm and Saturday and Sunday, from 9am to midnight.