Review: Merkamo Ethiopian, Old Spitalfields Market


If it were not for the clamour of the station, the residual undertones, overtones and the cacophonic medley of people and trains and technology, most people standing, sitting or walking by where I sat in Liverpool Street would have heard me moan like a dairy cow after my first mouthful off my Merkamo Ethiopian lunchbox. It was the kind of guttural sound that comes from the very core of your being. My body vibrated in resonance and I slouched further into my uncomfortable metal seat.

I was not prepared for that plate of food: mouth not sufficiently moistened, appetite there though tentative and cautious in the face of another vegan plate. It looked very colourful indeed. Each component in the technicolour assortment unique and curious, contributing to an aroma that had the ghost of familiarity, but eluded you like a name you cannot put to a face. It was exciting, and for a moment in time, in a station filled with people I was in my own head space, once again made oblivious to the world by a plate of food.

I’d left home early for Spitalfields market in anticipation of the weekend queues. I had vague idea of the stalls I was going to try, placing the Merkamo at the top because I thought it would be my quickest option. I was mistaken. There were a lot of people there, more than any of the others surrounding it. I decided to wait since no one in their right mind would queue up for vegan food unless it was the only vegan option or the food was spectacular.

Merkamo seemed to have the whole overcrowding situation figured out. Despite there already being fifteen or so people in line, with more uncertainly poking their nostrils between gaps in the queue or hovering over the show pieces in tempted contemplation, there were several members of staff running up the lines taking orders and keeping the walkways clear. Two others manned the food service station. In situations like these I am made to feel tremendously grateful for remote card machines and contactless technology. It makes everything run so much smoother.

At the Merkamo stall, all the dishes are placed close together on a tiered table that demonstrates, with overwhelming multiplicity, the different elements that are to comprise your plate of food. The sample plates at the front are key because most us would no idea what we were ordering without them. There’d have been just too many options, and I have enough trouble as it is with traditional menus with dishes I recognize. I just ordered the dish with the word ‘special’ in it, the merkamo special, as opposed to the less intriguing ‘salad’, ‘gluten free’ and ‘green’ plates. This seemed the most popular option as well, though I was surprised by how in demand the others were as well.

The most beautiful tray of street food I’ve ever set my eyes on was placed within my hands not long after I handed in my laminated order card. Trusting my instincts, I decided to wait a little before I settled down, walking back to the train station to find a place to sit. It felt like the kind of food you needed a dinner table for, but I had to make do. Also, in the past I’ve had horrible luck with things falling into my food where I stood, or being bumped into.  Sometimes randomers would even deem it appropriate to start a conversation because I’m so goddamn approachable. Hovering over and tray, plate or bowl of food on a stable surface with fewer people around was my only recourse.

If you are familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, you will know that the food is traditionally served on a large plate covered in a flatbread called injera, that appears and feels like a pancake, though tastes subtly bitter due to its sourdough, teff flour origination. At Merkamo, instead of mapping the tray with injera, they’ve instead placed little spongey rolls around the frame of the composition. You’ve got azifa, which is a simple earthy green lentil salad, mesir wot, a bright split red lentil dhal made spicy with the chilli spice of Ethiopian berbere, gomen, a dollop of stewed collard greens, kik alicha, mild split peas a golden turmeric yellow, bamya alicha, a dish of slow cooked delicate okra, some blanched and salad greens, olives and couscous on a bed of biriyani coloured rice. There was also this thick viscous spoonful of what I think is shiro wat, a kind of sauce/puree based in chickpea flour, placed between my okra and peas. Just as I was reaching for the tray at the stall, my server took it away only to place a doughnut-ty dumpling with an odd shaped samosa on top. To say there was a lot going on one plate would be a gross understatement.

But it works, it really does, from the marriage to flavours to the symphony of textures, every mouthful promises something slightly different yet equally delicious. An incredible plate of food for £7.50, was something I knew I’d be queuing up for every opportunity I got. Not only was it the best vegan dish I’d ever tasted (did I mention it was vegan?), it was also probably the most wholesome street food meal I’d ever had – and that’s saying something.



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