Even the most well-traveled palates can find little fault with the Model UN-esque breadth of cuisines available in Phnom Penh. From Iraqi to Russian, Taiwanese, Lebanese, Nepalese and Mexican, it is difficult to think of a part of the world that Phnom Penh does not have a great restaurant for… except African. But now, for the first time, Phnom Penh has an Ethiopian restaurant. And it is delicious.
Ethiopian food is best known for injera, a sour-ish spongy bread the thickness of American pancakes and made from fermented teff flour, and for a variety of curries based around either turmeric and ginger or the characteristically dark red berbere spice mix, which features paprika, chili, garlic, fenugreek and a handful of other spices. It’s food you eat with your hands, and made for sharing.
Sara Ethiopian restaurant is in a kind of unlikely spot on Street 172 near the back of Wat Ounalom, a street mainly populated by cheap guesthouses and backpacker joints. It’s an open shopfront with five or six tables, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Draft beers are $1, and other drinks are reasonably priced (NB: the only water available is bottled).
The combo plates are clearly the dish to order, unless you are rolling with a large crew or have eaten enough Ethiopian to know exactly what you like. Choose from meat and veggie combo, or veggie / vegan combo. The combo plates give you the chance to sample five or six (give or take) dishes, with injera included, for $5.50 (veggie) to $8 (meat), chef’s choice as to what is included. One combo plate will feed two people, and adding a salad and one more dish on the side generally feeds three.
Doro Wat, the slow-cooked onions, chicken, egg and berbere spice dish, is one of Sara’s signature dishes, although I think the tender beef cooked in berbere spiced butter, Tibs, and the raw beef tartare-style Kitfo (without egg, can also be served well-done) and Minchet Abish (with egg) are stand-outs from the meat menu. The meat dishes are on the pricey side ($8 each) compared to the rest of the menu but the quality of the meat is excellent and you don’t need a large serving to be satisfied.
For vegetarians, we recommend trying the Shiro Wat, a smooth berbere spiced chickpea-flour sauce, and Firfir, injera soaked in berbere spiced tomato sauce, that don’t normally come on the combo plate.
If you are looking for a milder curry, any of the yellow curries are less spicy (they are turmeric and ginger-based). Tikil Gomen has potatoes, carrots and cabbage or Kik Wot is yellow lentils, and the salads are well-dressed and surprising delicious in counterpoint with the curries.
I’ve been there several times now, and although the menu has been updated, it is only to expand the offerings, and quality has been very consistent. Sara’s culinary chops reportedly come from her mother, who also runs an Ethiopian restaurant in Sanaá, Yemen after leaving Addis Ababa for better business opportunities. The service can be a bit timid and a bit slow, but the food is great and definitely worth a visit (or, if you are like us, two or three visits a week). They don’t do delivery yet as far as we are aware, but they do provide catering services.
To close your meal, you can have spiced tea or Ethiopian coffee for $1, or a special “Ethiopian coffee ceremony” for $5. This coffee ceremony includes incense, a side dish of puffed rice and peanuts, and a pot of Ethiopian coffee. Maybe it was the food coma talking, but we were entranced by being enveloped by the perfumed clouds of this aromatic ceremony, relaxing while we sipped dark roasted, spiced coffee and munched on the crunchy toasted rice and nuts.
Sara Ethiopian Restaurant
Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 9 a.m. to midnight
St 172 (near the corner with St 13), Phnom Penh
T: 070 36 30 41; 070 503 256