Not too long ago, I heard a rumour about an Ethiopian restaurant run from a bedroom somewhere amongst the brutalist blocks in Flogsta, Uppsala, where I’m living this semester. Though I was told so little, the prospect seemed mythical and even absurd. How could someone possibly do that? I thought. Where would they sleep? Is it profitable?
My mind raced and I struggled to believe it. Perhaps it was an urban myth made up to taunt international students with the promise of a cuisine that had more to offer than picked herrings and meatballs. Nonetheless, when I caught wind of the rumour I was struck by insatiable curiosity and felt compelled to find out the truth.
Over the next few days, after asking the same questions many times, I found out that there was indeed a restaurant run from the comfort of a bedroom. However, the discovery of this fact was only half the battle if I were to eat there.
Making a reservation was a tricky business but eventually, through a friend of a friend, I managed to obtain the name and phone number of the restaurant. Perhaps this was due to the dubious legality of the set-up, the restaurant is not well advertised except for an obscure Facebook page which provides only a mobile number. Nevertheless, I called it to make a reservation for my flatmate Marie and me with the hope about finding out more about the identity of our host.
A man’s voice answered, he spoke quickly and abruptly as if he had been interrupted from doing something more important and curtly told me than now wasn’t a good time. Over a subsequent SMS exchange, he asked two questions; what time we’d would like to book and how spicy we’d like our food. Though the only nugget of information I gleamed from this interaction was that the food would have some level of spiciness, I was glad that my fantasy was fast becoming a reality.
With a ravenous curiosity and even deeper appetite, we approached the restaurant. As we neared, my apprehension for what we would find grew. A torrent of questions bombarded me. What sort of man would do this? Is he mentally okay? Why would I willingly go to a restaurant so ostensibly lacking food and hygiene regulations?!
It now dawned on me that my appetite for adventure had dampened my much more rational fear of the unknown. Such questions stewed in the back of my mind as we walked down a corridor that was so familiar to my own flat yet distorted unrecognisably by the potential danger that awaited us.
Even being a Hotelier at the Hotel for the Unexpected would not have prepared anyone for what awaited us behind his door. Could you imagine? What if someone had done this in Owens Park tower?
The restaurant, geometrically identical to mine and every other in Flogsta yet different in every other imaginable way, was dimly lit by single lamp nestled in the corner. Its light illuminated everything, from bookcases brimming with beer bottles to shelves stacked with CDs, vinyl’s and vintage magazines. In this archive of antiquities, lit up by a ghostly white light, stood our host, a man on the right side of 70 dressed entirely in khaki beachwear with a crop of greyish pink hair in a bun.
He was everything you’d expect and everything I deserved. He was old, Swedish and vivacious. After a short round of pleasantries, in which he refused to shake our hands and we admired his vast collection of collectibles, he spoke a little about himself. Though he never mentioned his name.
It turns out that he belonged to a group of residents who privately rented before the University bought out several blocks for student lettings. So, since 1989, he has lived here. Whilst Flogsta is little more than a half-way-house on the way to a career, mortgage and a family for most students for him it is, and has always been, a home.
It had also been, for a shorter time, an Ethiopian restaurant. Evidently, his room served as both the front-of-house and the kitchen. Amongst his collection of nostalgic knick-knacks were hotplates, saucepans and four hurriedly arranged chairs where Marie and I made ourselves comfortable.
When asked what drew him to Ethiopian food, rather than a cuisine a little closer to home, he was unapologetic about his distaste for European food. What he disliked particularly about it was the absence of spice, a crucial ingredient which he used in spades in his restaurant.
He described his introduction to spice as a sort of religious awakening. Whilst hitch-hiking in the Scottish Highlands around the time Kraftwerk’s first album came out, he stumbled upon an Indian restaurant which served him a simple vindaloo which converted him to a new cuisine. I know a lot of people re-evaluate life after eating this dish. But who knew a vindaloo could transform a worldview?
It transpired that his love for Ethiopian food came from a flatmate from 25 years ago who had taught him the recipe for injeras, a kind of sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture, traditionally made out of teff flour. It was her recipe he’d been perfecting all these years, testing on the new batches of students who heard about him, through friends of friends. A legacy which Marie and I were to become a part of.
Alongside the national dish of Ethiopia he served spiced spinach and an ambiguous-looking meat sauce. Everything was laden with a smorgasbord of spices which overwhelmed every other flavour the dish had to offer. It is only now looking back that I question if he deliberately disguised the flavours…
But reflecting on my experience, I realise that what we ate is irrelevant. He wasn’t selling dishes, but rather himself. I had gone there to satiate a curiosity about a rumour, to find out about the man behind the myth. Not to be wined and dined in a Michelin star establishment. And to that end, my appetite for adventure was gone.