Restaurant dining is a lost art in Ethiopia where the quality of the ingredients are suspect, the presentation poor and the basic hygiene standards are below par.

Not much can be criticised of the European buffet at the new five-star Ethiopian Skylight Hotel, unveiled recently by Ethiopian Airlines, except that the desserts are placed on the bottom shelf of an opened refrigerator where diners are obliged to bend awkwardly to serve themselves.

Otherwise, the buffet, plush and expensive by local standards, passes for a modest dinner in San Francisco. The food is attractively displayed, properly garnished, neatly arranged and agreeably flavoured, making the dining experience pleasant.

Skylight Hotel, the flagship hotel in Addis Abeba built by Ethiopian Airlines and the Chinese hospitality company of the same name, has a subtle Chinese theme about it including a Chinese Restaurant that is next door to the European Restaurant. There is a listing for an Ethiopian Restaurant, tucked away far from the lobby, where the rather modestly decorated and furnished atrium is ablaze with bellboys ferrying the luggage of well-heeled Chinese guests who seem to arrive in droves. The whole apparition appears to be a harbinger of things about to arrive from China's Belt & Road Initiative – clutters of monotonous steel and concrete edifices.

Looking around the Grand Skylight Hotel, any notion that Ethiopian Airlines will bring its quotidian transit customers and house them there appears as a far-fetched idea when they can be bussed to any number of less appointed establishments scattered around the city.

And there are many hotels to choose from to dine and lodge in the city. They may not feature the chick and slick atmosphere of Skyline’s European Restaurant buffet where a trained European chef tends to the food and keeps a watchful eye on the décor, but many are serviceable.

There is one such hotel on Debrezeit Road that caters to transit travellers who arrive by the busload for overnight stays before they disappear the next day. This dated and sedated hotel hosts an airy restaurant mainly staffed by cheerful and pleasant young ladies who seem to be happy to practice their English with the guests in endless conversations.

A regular lunch buffet in the restaurant offers fried potatoes, rice, meat and vegetable stews, sauces, an assortment of salads and fruit dishes haphazardly laid and tended by a chef who putters around aimlessly, more engaged with the young waitresses than the food put under his charge.

One of the guests grabs his attention and calls him over to complain, “the potatoes are burnt and charred, and they taste like parchment. Would you please take a look at them?”

“They were soft when we brought it out earlier,” he retorts. “Also, some of our clients prefer them that way.  But since you have complained we will make them softer tomorrow,” continues the brazen chef to the baffled guest.

“Oh! You don’t have a hotel standard?” rejoins the guest, and glancing toward the buffet table where small burners are lighted to full blast underneath the food warmers he remarks, “Look, the food is burning and charring. You should go over there and reduce the heat.”

The chef peeks toward the table but continues to stand and argue with the guest. He defends the charred, blackened and burnt food until finally he is dismissed with the wave of the hand by the frustrated guest who gets up and leaves the restaurant.

Restaurant dining in Ethiopia is a lost art where one is always left apprehensive about the quality of ingredients used, the storage of the food supplies, the cleanliness of the kitchen and the dining area, and of course the quality of service.

Across town, a popular privatised classic hotel hosts a busy restaurant where the salads are served drenched with palm-oil.

“Can I have olive oil instead?” inquires a guest of his waitress, after taking a bite of his salad dish.

“We only have Chief,” says the waitress, referring to a popular palm oil brand.

The salad is rejected and returned untouched. One does not customarily expect a rejected item to be removed from the dinner bill - that courtesy is alien in Ethiopia.

But here was an exception, “Would you like me to ask for a substitute?” Asks the pleasant waitress and the substitute turns out to be an emaciated deep-fried fish fillet that looks and tastes like an oil-drenched cardboard section- yes, soaked with palm oil.

Down the road from the hotel on Debrezeit Road stands a recently opened bakery that features attractive pastries, biscuits and cookies for a modest price. An order for a pastry arrives with a shriveled day-old item and the customer at first overlooks the infraction thinking that it may be a mishap. Another order on a separate day for the same item confirms that it is a practice of the bakery to fog day-old pastries to its customers. When weeks later a colleague brought to the office a dried up package of breadsticks from the same bakery all doubts about the shop’s practice are removed.

These anecdotes may be dismissed as the follies of an overindulgent consumer in the grip of ennui. But the irrefutable reality of dining out anywhere in Ethiopia, from mom-and-pop operations to some of the poshest restaurants, remains the poor quality of the ingredients used in making the food and the unhygienic conditions that confront guests. By far, the most pressing concern is the latter, the prevailing unsanitary conditions of food catering establishments.

The list of infractions includes using unhygienic cutlery, inappropriate food storage, absence of disinfected and properly functioning bathroom facilities and the practice of unsafe food preparation methods.

In a 2017 article, Getachew Fisseha et al, attributes blame of unacceptable and inadequate hygienic and unsafe conditions present in the food catering business to “the general sanitary problems that prevail in [country.]”

Perhaps, the problem and the solution may lie in arousing a docile public that easily accepts and reconciles itself to substandard conditions perpetrated against its self-interest by government and the private sector. Citizens need to be more vocal, proactive and vigilant in defending their self-interests against the vagaries of a careless government and an inattentive private sector.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 20,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 990]

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