This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
By DAVID MCDONALD
You’re wandering in Addis Ababa, the gritty, bustling capital of Ethiopia, and you have a sudden craving for home. What to do? You find improbably named Mickey Leland Street and the even more improbable Oh Canada restaurant. Inside, there’s a big red maple leaf on the ceiling and photos of the Rideau Canal on the wall. You ponder Arcade Fire Pizza but finally succumb to the Ottawa Senators Bacon Cheeseburger. A heavily laden donkey plods past the window. You’re home, but you’re not.
Lily Kassahoun knows how you feel. The former owner of Memories, the venerable ByWard Market dessert palace, was born in Addis. After more than 20 years away, family circumstances have brought her back. But her heart remains in Canada. “I miss it so much,” she says. So, in December 2012, she opened her unabashed ode to all things Canuck. While the locals remain baffled by the giant Erik Karlsson cutout on the back patio, they have embraced Canadian cuisine.
Coast to Coast
“That’s what you guys eat?” wide-eyed customers exclaimed when they first sampled poutine. Well, not every day, she had to explain — it’s comfort food. Before opening her restaurant, Kassahoun spent months searching, fruitlessly, for cheese curds, finally having to settle for a very soft mozzarella that would melt under the heat of the gravy. Her local adaptation — like the Newfoundland and Labrador Fish & Chips made with Nile perch — has since become an Oh Canada signature dish.
SERVING SENS Lily Kassahoun brings Canadian cuisine to the capital city of Ethiopia with her restaurant Oh Canada. Photo by Samuel Taye
During the hockey playoffs, Kassahoun gets to bed early — because at 2:30 a.m., her alarm goes off. She makes herself a coffee, flips on her computer, and lies in bed listening to her beloved Senators streaming on Team 1200. “My mind is like a 50-year-old Canadian man’s,” she says, laughing. “I absolutely love hockey.” She was, in fact, set on calling her eatery Sensation Café — until her father informed her Sensation was a popular Ethiopian condom brand.
Maple Leaf Forever
Kassahoun fretted that her restaurant would be branded a ferenji place, strictly a place for foreigners. And certainly the diplo and NGO crowd, particularly the staff from the nearby American embassy, has embraced the shiny upscale café. But on the day we drop by, 90 percent of the patrons are young white-collar Ethiopians eating burgers named for hockey teams beneath photos of moose and beavers and Alanis Morissette. Kassahoun wears her maple leaf on her sleeve — and everywhere else too.