Ethiopia has a culture that stands apart from all the nations around it in every way, and that includes food. Ethiopian food is not only some of the most diverse on the continent, but also totally different to any other cuisine you may have encountered. Whether it’s the spices joyfully bringing a tear to your eye or the slightly tart taste of the spongy injera (the thin pancake that accompanies most Ethiopian meals) sending your tongue into convulsions, Ethiopia's culinary offering is utterly unforgettable.
Staples & Specialities
Eating Ethiopian-style means rethinking many things you might assume about eating. That's because the foundation of almost every meal in Ethiopia is injera, a one-of-a-kind pancake of near-universal proportions. At seemingly every turn, plates, bowls and even utensils are replaced by injera. Atop its rubbery surface sit delicious multicoloured mounds of spicy meat stews, tasty vegetable curries and even cubes of raw beef.
Other staples that are ever-present on most menus are the much-heralded wat (stew), kitfo (mince meat) and tere sega (raw meat).
Just like your first kiss, your first taste of injera is an experience you’ll never forget.
It’s the national staple and the base of almost every meal. It is spread out like a large, thin pancake, and food is simply heaped on top of it. An American tourist is said to have once mistaken it for the tablecloth. Occasionally, injera is served rolled up beside the food or on a separate plate, looking much like a hot towel on an aeroplane.
First impressions of injera are not always positive. The tangy taste can be unsettling for those not used to it, but give it another few mouthfuls and, for most travellers at least, it should start to grow on you. The bitter, slightly sour, taste contrasts beautifully with the fiery sauces it normally accompanies. Like bread, it’s filling; like a pancake, it’s good for wrapping around small pieces of food and mopping up juices. It’s also much easier to manipulate on the plate than rice and it doesn’t fall apart as easily as bread – all up injera is quite a clever invention, really.
Although injera may look like an old grey kitchen flannel, grades and nuances do exist. With a bit of time and perseverance, you may even become a connoisseur.
Low-quality injera is traditionally dark, coarse and sometimes very thick, and is made from a very dark tef (the indigenous Ethiopian cereal). In some areas millet or even sorghum act as a substitute for tef, though it’s very unlikely that as a tourist you’d encounter injera made of either of these. Good-quality injera is pale (the paler the better), regular in thickness, smooth (free of husks) and always made from a white tef. Because tef grows only in the highlands, the best injera is traditionally found there, and highlanders tend to be rather snooty about lesser lowland versions.
Know Your Injera
With large Ethiopian populations living in Western countries many people will have tried Ethiopian food in their home cities, but take note that what often passes for injera there is not real injera at all. Although you can get real injera outside the Horn of Africa, most of the time you will instead be served something made from a tef substitute. Injera made like this lacks the slightly fermented, tangy taste and the rubbery feel of real injera.
When in Ethiopia, many foreigners quickly find themselves getting fed up with an endless diet of injera (and that’s without taking into account the sometimes undesired ‘side-effects’ on your stomach that eating a semifermented bread for days on end can cause some visitors); this is especially true of those eating only in cheap, local restaurants where injera might not be of the highest quality. In fact, when we spoke to tour guides about this most of them thought that around 80% of foreign visitors try to avoid eating injera again after a week in Ethiopia!
But let’s not be too hard on injera. Some travellers adore the stuff and happily munch it down for week after week and, being full of proteins and nutrients, it can actually help to keep you healthy on the road.
If injera fatigue kicks in for you, then you’ll probably find it worth splashing out on an Ethiopian ‘banquet’ at a more expensive tourist-class restaurant in Addis or any of the big tourist towns. Generally the injera at these places is of a very high quality and much less sour. After a couple of meals like this you’ll probably be ready to hit the cheap stuff again. And if not, well you can always ask to have your wat (stew) served with bread instead of injera, or even just resort to the sloppy pasta and dubious sauce that’s sold everywhere!
Kitfo is a big treat for the ordinary Ethiopian. The leanest meat is reserved for this dish, which is then minced and warmed in a pan with a little butter, mitmita (a stronger version of berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix with up to 16 constituent elements) and sometimes tosin (thyme). It can be bland, or tasty and divine. If you’re ravenous after a hard day’s travelling, it’s just the ticket, as it’s very filling.
Traditionally, it’s served just leb leb (warmed not cooked), though you can ask for it to be betam leb leb (literally ‘very warmed’, ie cooked). A kitfo special is served with aib (like dry cottage cheese) and gomen (minced spinach).
In the Gurage region (where it’s something of a speciality) it’s often served with kotcho (enset; false-banana ‘bread’). Kitfo bets (restaurants specialising in kitfo) are found in the larger towns.
Another favourite meat dish of ours is siga tibs, which consists of small strips of fried meat served with onions, garlic and spices. It’s most commonly served derek (dry), but you can also find a merek yalew version, which comes in a liquid sauce.
Considered something of a luxury in Ethiopia, tere sega (raw meat) is traditionally served by the wealthy at weddings and other special occasions.
Some restaurants also specialise in it. Not unlike butcher shops in appearance, these places feature carcasses hanging near the entrance and men in bloodied overalls brandishing carving knives. The restaurants aren’t as gruesome as they sound: the carcass is to demonstrate that the meat is fresh, and the men in overalls to guarantee you get the piece you fancy – two assurances you don’t always get in the West.
A plate and a sharp knife serve as utensils, and awazi (a kind of mustard and chilli sauce) and mitmita (a powdered seasoning mix) as accompaniments. Served with some local red wine, and enjoyed with Ethiopian friends, it’s a ritual not to be missed – at least not for red-blooded meat eaters. It’s sometimes called gored gored.
The ubiquitous companion of injera, wat is Ethiopia’s version of curry and can be very spicy – fortunately the injera helps to temper the heat.
In the highlands, beg (sheep) is the most common constituent of wat. Bere (beef) is encountered in the large towns, and fiyel (goat) most often in the arid lowlands. Chicken is the king of the wat and doro wat (chicken stew) is practically the national dish. Ethiopian Christians as well as Muslims avoid pork. On the fasting days of Wednesdays and Fridays, throughout Lent and prior to Christmas, as well as a further couple of occasions, meat and dairy dishes are avoided and various vegetarian versions of wat are available. Most foreigners become firm fans of fasting food.
Kai wat is a stew of meat boiled in a spicy (thanks to oodles of berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix) red sauce. Kai sauce is also used for minchet abesh, which is a thick minced-meat stew topped with a hard-boiled egg – it’s one of our favourites, particularly with aib (like dry cottage cheese).
Most Ethiopians seem to be under the impression that all foreigners are terrified of spicy food and so, unless you specifically ask for kai wat, you’ll often be served the yellow-coloured alicha wat, a much milder, and really rather dull-tasting wat.
Popular breakfast dishes include enkulal fir fir (scrambled eggs made with a combination of green and red peppers, tomatoes and sometimes onions, served with bread), the omelette version is known as enkulal tibs, ful (broad beans and butter purée) and injera fir fir (torn-up injera mixed with butter and berbere, a red powder containing 16 spices or more).
Most meals are served with injera (the thin, slightly sour pancake that is an Ethiopian staple).
|alicha wat||mild stew (meat and vegetarian options)|
|asa wat||freshwater fish served as a hot stew|
|beyainatu||literally ‘of every type’ – a small portion of all dishes on the menu; also known by its Italian name secondo misto|
|bistecca ai ferri||grilled steak|
|derek tibs||meat (usually lamb) fried and served derek (‘dry’ – without sauce)|
|doro wat||chicken drumstick or wing accompanied by a hard-boiled egg served in a hot sauce of butter, onion, chilli, cardamom and berbere (a red Ethiopian spice mix)|
|dulet||minced tripe, liver and lean beef fried in butter, onions, chilli, cardamom and pepper (often eaten for breakfast)|
|kai wat||lamb, goat or beef cooked in a hot berbere sauce|
|kitfo||minced beef or lamb like the French steak tartare, usually served warmed (but not cooked) in butter, mitmita (a powdered seasoning mix) and sometimes thyme|
|kwalima||sausage served on ceremonial occasions|
|kwanta fir fir||strips of beef rubbed in chilli, butter, salt and berbere then usually hung up and dried; served with torn-up injera (the thin, slightly sour pancake served with most Ethiopian meals)|
|mahabaroui||a mixture of dishes including half a roast chicken|
|melasena senber tibs||beef tongue and tripe fried with berbere and onion|
|minchet abesh||minced beef or lamb in a hot berbere sauce|
|tere sega||raw meat served with a couple of spicy accompaniments (occasionally called gored gored)|
|tibs||sliced lamb, pan fried in butter, garlic, onion and sometimes tomato|
|tibs sheukla||tibs served sizzling in a clay pot above hot coals|
|zilzil tibs||strips of beef, fried and served slightly crunchy with awazi (mustard and chilli) sauce|
|aib||like dry cottage cheese|
|atkilt-b-dabbo||vegetables with bread|
|awazi||a kind of mustard and chilli sauce|
|berbere||as many as 16 spices or more go into making the famous red powder that is responsible for giving much Ethiopian food its kick; most women prepare their own special recipe, often passed down from mother to daughter over generations, and proudly adhered to|
|dabbo fir fir||torn-up bits of bread mixed with butter and berbere|
|enkulal tibs||literally ‘egg tibs’, a kind of Ethiopian scrambled eggs made with a combination of green and red peppers, tomatoes and sometimes onions, served with dabbo (bread) – great for breakfast|
|ful||broadbean and butter purée eaten for breakfast|
|genfo||barley or wheat porridge served with butter and berbere|
|injera||large Ethiopian version of a pancake/plate|
|injera fir fir||torn-up bits of injera mixed with butter and berbere|
|kotcho||false-banana ‘bread’; a staple food|
|messer||a kind of lentil curry made with onions, chillies and various spices|
|shiro||chickpea or bean purée lightly spiced, served on fasting days|
|sils||hot tomato and onion sauce eaten for breakfast|
|tihlo||an eastern Tigray speciality consisting of barley balls dipped in a spicy sauce|
|ye tsom megeb||a selection of different vegetable dishes, served on fasting days|
Where to Eat
Outside Addis Ababa and major towns, there isn’t a plethora of eating options. You’re usually constrained to small local restaurants (which in Ethiopia, as in much of East Africa, are often known as hotels or some variation of the word) that serve one pasta dish and a limited selection of Ethiopian food. In larger towns, local restaurants and hotels both offer numerous Ethiopian meals. The hotel menus also throw some (often very forgettable) Western meals into the mix.
Kitfo bets are specialist restaurants in larger towns that primarily serve kitfo (minced beef or lamb served raw with local spices). Similarly tej bets are bars that focus on serving tej (honey wine).
Unlike Addis Ababa, where restaurant hours vary widely, most restaurants elsewhere are open daily from around 7.30am to 10pm. Tej bets tend to open later (around 10am) and close about 10pm or later.
Food plays a major role in religious festivals of both Muslims and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, while Ethiopian Orthodox Christians abstain from eating any animal products in the 55 days leading up to Ethiopian Easter.
Orthodox Ethiopians also abstain from animal products each Wednesday and Friday. There are a very large number of Orthodox feast days, of which 33 honour the Virgin Mary alone.
Eating the Flowers of Paradise
Head to eastern Ethiopia and you don’t have to be there long to notice the bulging cheeks of the chat chewer. Chat, khat, qat or miraa are the leaves of the shrub Catha edulis. Originating in the hills of eastern Ethiopia the chat plant has spread across parts of East Africa and into southern Arabia, and for many of the inhabitants of this broad swath of land the afternoon chat-chewing session has become almost a pivotal point of life.
The effects of chat have long been debated – most users will insist that it gives an unbeatable high, makes you more talkative (at least until the come down when the chewer becomes withdrawn and quiet), suppresses hunger, prevents tiredness and increases sexual performance. Others will tell you that it gives no noticeable high, makes you lethargic, slightly depressed, constipated and reduces sex drive! Most Western visitors who try it report no major effects aside from a possible light buzz and an unpleasant aftertaste.
If you’re going to chew chat then you need to make sure the setting is perfect in order to enjoy the experience. Ask for the sweetest chat you can get (most Ethiopians regard this as poor quality chat, but first-time chewers find even this very bitter) and get a good group of people together to chew with, because chat is, above all else, a social drug. Take yourself off to a quiet and comfortable room – ideally one with a view, sit back, relax and enjoy the conversation while popping leaves individually into your mouth where you literally just store them in one cheek, gently chewing them. All going well you’ll be a chat ‘addict’ by the end of the day.
And if you like it enough to want to take some home, remember that chat may be legal in Ethiopia but is illegal in many Western countries, including the UK and the countries of the European Union.
Habits & Customs
Eating from individual plates strikes most Ethiopians as hilarious, as well as rather bizarre and wasteful. In Ethiopia, food is always shared from a single plate, without the use of cutlery.
In many cases, with a simple Enebla! (Please join us!), people invite those around them (even strangers) to join them at their restaurant table. For those invited, it’s polite to accept a morsel of the food to show appreciation.
In households and many restaurants, a jug of water and basin are brought out to wash the guests’ outstretched hands before the meal.
When eating with locals, try not to guzzle. Greed is considered rather uncivilised. The tastiest morsels will often be laid in front of you; it’s polite to accept them or, equally, to divide them among your fellow diners. The meat dishes such as doro wat (chicken stew) are usually the last thing locals eat off the injera (the thin, slightly sour pancake that accompanies most Ethiopian meals) so don’t hone in on it immediately!
There are a few things to remember when eating with Ethiopians:
- If you’ve been invited to someone’s home for a meal, bring a small gift. Pastries or flowers are good choices in urban areas, while sugar, coffee and fruit are perfect in rural areas.
- Use just your right hand for eating. The left (as in Muslim countries) is reserved for personal hygiene only. Keep it firmly tucked under the table.
- Take from your side of the tray only; reaching is considered impolite.
- Leave some leftovers on the plate after a meal. Failing to do so is sometimes seen as inviting famine.
- Feel free to pick your teeth after a meal. Toothpicks are usually supplied in restaurants.
- Try and avoid putting food back onto the food plate – even by the side. It’s better to discard it onto the table or floor, or keep it in your napkin.
- While eating, try also to avoid touching your mouth, licking your fingers, or filling your mouth too full. All are considered impolite.
Don't be embarrassed or alarmed at the tradition of gursha, when someone (usually the host) picks the tastiest morsel and feeds it directly into your mouth. The trick is to take it without letting your mouth come into contact with the person’s fingers, or allowing the food to fall. It’s a mark of great friendship or affection, and is usually given at least twice (once is considered unlucky). Refusing to take gursha is a terrible slight to the person offering it!
With raw meat being a staple in Ethiopia, what dishes could possibly constitute a radical departure for those wishing to truly travel their tastebuds and try unusual local foods?
High on the exotic factor would have to be trippa wat (tripe stew), which still curls our toes and shakes our stomachs. And if unleavened bread that’s been buried in an underground pit and allowed to ferment for up to six months suits your fancy, order some kotcho with your kitfo (minced beef or lamb served raw with local spices). Kotcho comes from the false-banana plant (known in Ethiopia as enset) and closely resembles a fibrous carpet liner.
And how about knocking back a shot of the holy water used at the Debre Libanos Monastery to wash the 1500-year-old leg of St Tekla Haimanot?
Vegetarians & Vegans
On Wednesday, Friday and throughout the build up to Fasika (Lent), vegetarians breathe easy as these are the traditional fasting days, when no animal products should be eaten. Ethiopian fasting food most commonly includes messer (lentil curry), gomen (minced spinach) and kai ser (beetroot). Ful (broadbean and butter purée) is another saviour for vegetarians, although this is normally only served at breakfast time.
Apart from fasting days, Ethiopians are rapacious carnivores and vegetables are often conspicuous by their complete absence. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, the best plan is to order alternative dishes in advance. If not, some dishes such as shiro (chickpea purée) are quite quickly prepared. Note that fancier hotels and some restaurants tend to offer fasting food seven days a week.
If you’re really concerned about the availability of vegetarian food, the best bet is to come during the 55 days preceding Fasika. It’s also a good idea to keep a small stack of vegetarian snacks on hand.