I forgot to take a photo of my meal at Kokob, but if you've seen Ethiopian food, you know it's not the plating that makes the meal.
In fact, with Ethiopian food, forget the idea of plates and utensils altogether. The food is served on a big platter of injera bread, and consumed with torn-off pieces of more injera bread. And if you've never had injera, you're missing a real treat. Seriously. Find your nearest Ethiopian restaurant and make a reservation immediately. You won't be sorry.
Where was I? Oh yes, in Brussels, where we spent a couple of days this week. Brussels is one of my favorite cities, yet it's extremely unfriendly to vegans. There aren't many vegetarian restaurants, according to my favorite source, Happy Cow, and those are located nowhere near the city centre, as best I can tell. So I've yet to try one, despite having visited Brussels quite a few times.
And if, like me, you're trying to dine on Monday evening, forget it. All the vegetarian restaurants are closed.
Fortunately, I discovered one of my favorite cuisines, Ethiopian, is well-represented in Europe's capital city by KoKoB, only a short walk from the Grand Place and a few steps from the famous Mannekin Pis.
On Monday evening, we managed to snag one of the last unreserved tables—let that serve as a warning to make a reservation early. The place was packed. The back room is reserved for large groups, and even it filled during the evening.
I've eaten Ethiopian food in Denver, London and Rome. Plus I've attempted to make it myself. The cuisine is very vegan friendly, as you won't find the heavy cream-based sauces or eggy custards that feature in European fare. It's simple food, but made with complex spices that liven up the experience of eating with one's fingers.
On a continent where eating pizza with one's hands is considered uncouth, it takes some convincing to get locals to eat with their fingers. The two guys sitting next to us insisted on using the serving spoons to scoop up their food, but I noticed they ate every bit of it.
The next occupants of the table, a young North American couple, were willing to give it a go, after the server explained the technique to them. A few bites later, I heard the woman exclaim, "I'm a convert!"
That's how I felt the first time I tried Ethiopian food in Denver about 10 years ago. It reminded me a lot of Southern food, with down-home vegetables playing a prominent role: cabbage, squash, lentils, greens. But the spices are not something you come across in Grandma's kitchen. Berbere, the Ethiopian spice mixture, combines spicy peppers and piquant ginger, wielding a flavor punch you won't soon forget.
KoKoB handles the spices just fine. We ordered a three-dish combo (Beyanetu Miser) for two (32 euro), which included Miser Kik Key, lentils cooked in a spicy tomato sauce; Tîkle Gomen, cabbage and carrots; and Attir Kik Alicha, yellow split peas cooked in a milder sauce. As a side dish, we chose Azifa, green lentils with lemon sauce. First, though, we were offered a starter of a cup of bulgher wheat pilaf, an interesting combination of bulgher, yellow raisins and lemon juice.
We devoured all three, but the best was the Miser Kik Key. Not too hot for our tastes, but Europeans with their more delicate tastebuds might want to order something with fewer chiles next to the name on the menu. The berbere really stood out in this dish: the tomato sauce seemed to bring out its spicy flavors.
Our basket of injera ran out, so we asked for more, promptly delivered by our friendly server. I've made a few attempts at making injera myself—it's no easy task, unless you use a shortcut (soda water to produce the bubbles) but this was not made with the shortcut method. I could've eaten the plate—in fact, we did eat most of it, after the spicy sauces had soaked the injera and we'd finished our second basket.
We had no room for dessert, even if there had been anything vegan on offer, but we were served an Ethiopian honey aperitif (honey isn't generally considered vegan, but it's on my exception list). It was interesting, a sweet end to a satisfying meal.
My only complaint? The rickety chairs. With so much commotion going on at the birthday party behind me, I was constantly in danger of being tipped over. However, the convenience of having a vegan meal served on Monday and so near the Grand Place more than made up for the inconvenience of having to balance on an unstable chair.
Would I go again? Mais oui!
KoKoB is located on the Rue des Grands Carmelites, just down from Mannekin Pis. For reservations, phone 02 511 1950.