Sara Alamerew pops the lid off of a glass container of rosemary and lifts it to her nose.
On the counter in the tiny kitchen are jars of crushed red chili, chickpea powder, cumin and mitmita, made from chili peppers, cardamom, cloves and other ingredients. “In Ethiopia everything is powerful,” she says. “This is our secret.”
Alamerew and her husband, Berhanu Demisse, opened Sara Ethiopian Restaurant at the beginning of May, the city’s first restaurant serving Ethiopian food.
The husband and wife pair got the idea to open a restaurant after they came to the country late last year to visit a friend. Seeing the high volume of tourists and a dynamic and international food scene, they decided to leave Addis Ababa, where power cuts and other struggles had forced them to close their existing restaurant.
While the location may seem incongruous, Alamerew is used to picking up her life and moving it elsewhere. When she was a child, her mother moved to Sana’a in Yemen, where she opened a restaurant. For much of her childhood, she was moving back and forth between Ethiopia and Yemen.
Then in ninth grade, she moved to New Delhi, where she lived until receiving her BA in economics.
Alamerew is quick to explain that her mother, Semira Sred, holds the culinary genius behind the operation. After more than 35 years in business, Sred still runs her restaurant in Sana’a but she joined her daughter and son-in-law in Phnom Penh to help them set up before returning to Yemen later this month.
“All my family comes from this kind of work,” Alamerew explains. “We are not true experts. I didn’t go to school to study cooking I learned it from my mum.”
At Sara, the dishes are best consumed by platter – with a range of vegetables and meat alongside injera, the sponge-like Ethiopian bread that is made each morning in house. The specialty is the Doro Wat, a spicy chicken stew whose potency comes from berbere, a spice mix in which red chili figures prominently.
On the Meat Veggie Combo ($8) alongside the Doro Wat is the Minchet Abish – chopped lean beef with onion – string beans, a cabbage dish called Tikil Gomen and lentils.
A similarly sized vegetarian platter is also available. The influence from having spent time in the Arab world shows through in the non-Ethiopian items, like Hummus, Moutabal and Foul.
The couple insists on freshness and authenticity, cooking every item to order and importing the spices, coffee and other ingredients from Ethiopia – with the help of friends working in the airline industry who bring them to Bangkok.
“That’s why we’re taking orders more slowly than others,” Demisse said. “We are just doing everything fresh.”
For the handful of Ethiopians living in the capital, Sara has provided a lifeline to their taste buds. According to Demisse, there may be fewer than 10 living in Phnom Penh, and they can be found at any hour of the day hanging out at the restaurant.
“Before when they want to taste Ethiopian food they would go to Bangkok. But now they come here to eat and chill with their friends,” he said.
Sara Ethiopian Restaurant is open from 10:30am-10:30pm every day. It is located at #7 Street 172. Tel: 070 36 30 41.