Food fest in Amsterdam-Noord: Restaurant Semai

How foodblogger Jonneke de Zeeuw accidentally discovered a hidden culinary gem in Noord.

A few weeks ago I took a wrong turn in Amsterdam-Noord. I was on my way to Cafe De Ceuvel but made an accidental detour and came across a little street at fallow ground with mainly garages. I drove a little further and saw a lounge. Hanging above the lounge were red lights that together formed the word ‘open’. My Mooncake sensors went into active mode. As I was sitting on the back of a scooter, I jumped off and headed for the stairs. I asked a cute kid who was lounging and barricading the stairs at the same time, whether there was a restaurant upstairs. He shrugged; it didn’t make much sense to him. I stepped across him and walked upstairs. There a charming man welcomed me. And yes, I could certainly eat there. Eritrean/Ethiopean that is. I promised him to come back in a few days to have a taste (because of course, again, as so often happens, I had already eaten) and, if it was worth the trouble, to write a blog about it.

We need to talk about restaurant Semai urgently, dear readers. There you can experience a true food fest and it’s possible until about midnight. I find that very comforting because it happens to me so often that I want to eat late at night and a lot of restaurants are closed at that time. I am told that “Everything has been cleaned already” or “The cooks have already gone home” and therefore they don’t even serve a breadcrumb anymore. All annoyed, I start making plans to go live abroad (again). But now, that’s not necessary anymore.

I love the Eritrean and the Ethiopean cuisine but I never had it as good as at Semai. In terms of herbs this quisine is actually different from most other countries in Africa. This is because for thousands of years, trade contacts have existed (spices among others) with the countries around the Red Sea and India. Also, the Coptic-Christian, the Muslim and the European culture had their influences which made their cuisine so unique. Eritrea used to be an Italian colony, that’s why these days, it’s still easy to score a plate of pasta or lasagna there, if you’d like to. I intend to travel to Ethiopea in a while; I heard that it’s very beautiful there.
I started off with a cup of Abyssinian tea with cinnamon and other herbs that I couldn’t possibly translate :). Nice and different from any other tea I ever drank.


I asked one of the two owners, Amanyal, to make a mix of all the dishes on the menu and that’s what happened. This ended up on the table:
With the King of Dishes in the Eritrean-Ethiopean cuisine; dorowot – a bridal dish:
Dorowot is chicken in the best sauce ever. A lot of onions mixed with berbere (a mix of herbs) have been cooked for hours in tesmi (clarified butter that resembles the Moroccan smen or Indian ghee) into a divine sauce. Add some soft chicken and an egg and you have nothing more to wish for in your life. Everything is just simply good. A bigger house, or a house at all, a love to share your life with, a job or a car, reproduction – those things all pale compared to this dish.
Another photo of the dish from a different angle. Because it was so beautiful. Look at it, such beauty:
The tartare in the middle is called kofto – that’s spicey raw beef. It’s prepared a little less raw here than usual. We also got served hamli (with spinach) and tumtumo (lentils) and seasoned lamb. With two people you can choose, for instance, 3 meat dishes or 3 vegetarian dishes and that will cost you between €15,- and €17,50. No, not per person. Really, for two people. That means divide by two. That’s right people. It’s true. Just a main costs between €10,- and €14,-.

And now I’d like to talk about those sourdough pancakes – injera. They top it all off, they elevate all those dishes to a higher level. They make all the different piles of food on that dish fit together like a puzzle; those pancakes are the guiding thread in this cuisine. That King of Dishes for example. In terms of flavours it’s already so full and layered. And then, when you take a bite with a piece of injera it adds a zingy taste. And that makes you take more bites so that’s good because as you can see in the pictures I still had a long way to go.
Look, this is what such pancake also does:
It sucks all flavours in like a spunge. Lovely.

Oh and now a tip. If you want to blend in with the Eritrean-Ethiopean culture, then by all means don’t lick your fingers after eating. That really is a no go. Wipe them with your napkin or wash them with soap but never with your own mouth!

A kind of desert:
Originally this cuisine doesn’t have sweet dishes or deserts. What it does have is an extensive coffee ceremony after dinner. Very cool if you are with a big group. You will be seated in a big circle while the coffee beans are being roasted in a little pan and grinded (with herbs) in your presence. Fresh popcorn is being popped and the whole ritual easily takes an hour and a half. You actually have to drink at least 3 rounds of coffee; leaving early is impolite. The first cup of coffee is the strongest. In the old days they put salt or butter in their coffee until the Italians came to Ethiopia and introduced sugar (alhamdulilah :)).

foodfissa11If you don’t drink coffee, like me (because it makes me go totally wild) you can also have a glass of Araki (about the same as… you guessed it…Turkish raki).

The cutest tablecloth:
Artsy stuff:
Do yourself a favour and discover this hidden gem!
Restaurant Semai
• Papaverhoek 35 in Amsterdam-Noord
• Phone: 020-7866625
• Open every day from 12.00 noon until 12.00 midnight.

Written by: Jonneke de Zeeuw.

This article was published previously on the great foodblog Mooncake.

Mooncake discovers THE hidden gems with regard to (street) food in Amsterdam en further afield AND shares recipes and other edible entertainment! Follow Mooncake on Facebook as well! Thank you Jonneke for discovering this Noordish gem!

Translation: Anke Feenstra