Ethiopian food is one of my best travel discoveries. In fact, it is one of the highlights of my recent Ethiopian trip. I had no idea of it before my trip and while in the country, did not eat anything else. I loved it so much that while returning the only souvenirs that I carried back from Ethiopia for myself were bottles of local spices used in this very interesting cuisine. I felt confident after my cooking class in Addis Ababa that I could toss up at least some of its dishes, but the results of my efforts proved otherwise. Ethiopian food is one of the most complex and exciting cuisines in the world and the variety of its dishes will take you by surprise. The best part about it, however, is not just the delicious food but the practice of some very endearing food rituals. In Ethiopia, food is an important part of the culture and is served and shared with friends and family. The dishes are served on a communal platter and there are many etiquettes and nuances concerning food. The loveliest of them is the gesture of ‘gursha’. It is when Ethiopians tear off pieces of their famous flatbread, injera to scoop up some stew, and feed someone with their own hands as a mark of love or respect. Couples often do it to each other, grandchildren give gursha to their grandparents and it is also practiced among friends.
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A brief background of Ethiopian food
Ethiopian food uses an extensive array of spices, herbs, and flavoured clarified butter (like the Indian ghee) apart from the vegetables, cereals, and meat. This variety gives the cuisine its unique flavours that are, trust me, not easy to replicate without the proper ingredients. Upon my visits to the local markets, I was surprised to see herbs like rosemary, parsley, chives, and sage being sold along with fiery harissa chili peppers and one look at that combination was a giveaway to the unique cultural mix that is the Ethiopian cuisine. Take a look at the map of Ethiopia and the country’s geography and history, in situ, will make you understand the reason behind its complex cuisine. Despite being a landlocked country, Ethiopia or erstwhile Abyssinia had been visited by foreigners throughout centuries and it was a major hub in the Middle East, Asia, and Mediterranean trading routes. Ethiopian food absorbed the culinary footprints left by endless streams of traders and travelers for millennia and eventually acquired tastes, spices, and indigenous ingredients from countries along these trade routes. That is why finding niter kibbeh (spices and herbs infused ghee) as a base for most Ethiopian dishes did not surprise me and the juxtapositioning of harissa chili with thyme in Ethiopian food seemed normal. Long story short, Ethiopian food is like a chapter from the social studies book served on a platter, and in this case, the platter is a delicious edible staple called injera.
Ethiopian food staples: injera and more
Injera is to the Ethiopians what rice is to most Asians: a staple they need to consume every day, except that in Ethiopia, injera is consumed multiple times a day with nearly every meal. It is the country’s main staple and is made from tef (an indigenous Ethiopian cereal that has now been recognized as a superfood). Injera is ubiquitous in Ethiopia and it is served with every meal. Injera serves as a platter and curries and stir-fries are piled on top of it. Think of it as an edible table cloth and this spongy stretchy flatbread soaks up the sauces in the best possible way. The best injeras usually have a pale beige color, but one can also find them in different shades of brown or grey. The colour depends upon the quality and the dark ones of the poorest quality in which tef is mixed generously with barley or buckwheat. In Ethiopia, injera is made on a large wok like utensil and the process is similar to making a pancake or a dosa. Most foreigners either love or hate injera and if you don’t like its slightly sour, tangy taste, then eating in Ethiopia might prove to be a problem. However, it is an acquired taste and the best bites of injera are mouthfuls of the spongy bread dipped in red berbere sauce. Apart from injera, Ethiopian food also has the sweet and savoury himbasha with a scored decorative wheel-like pattern on top, kocho made from enset or false banana plant, and the unleavened spiced kitcha. An interesting breakfast dish called fit-fit is made with slices of kitcha, spiced clarified butter, and the hot spice berbere.
Ethiopian spices, seasonings, and sauces
The fundamental Ethiopian spices are there to add heat to the food. So if you like your food spice, then this cuisine is for you. Similar to Indian cuisine, Ethiopian food uses a variety of spices and some of the most popular ones are berbere, mit mita, niter kibbeh, awazi, and da’ta. Berbere is like the garam masala of Ethiopian food. Chili powder, fenugreek, ginger, garlic, cardamom, cinnamon, and around 20 other spices are combined to make this signature red powder that adds magic to the injera, stews, and sauces. Mitmita is another Ethiopian kitchen must-have. This core spice blend is made of chilies (smaller and hotter than berbere), cardamom seed, cloves, and salt. It is rather salty when eaten as a spicy condiment and the Ethiopians use it while cooking meat dishes. Awazi is the paste version of berbere and it goes well with meat dishes. Berbere is mixed with oil or water to make this unique dark red fiery paste. Da’ta is the mildest of them all. It is a thick, pulverized paste of green low-heat chilies and herbs. Niter kibbeh is the most important Ethiopian kitchen staple. Made by cooking butter together with a huge number of ingredients like onions, garlic, and ginger and spices like fenugreek, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg, niter kibbeh adds that special magic to Ethiopian food. It is nearly impossible to get outside Ethiopia and one of the most difficult DIY cooking ingredients. Ethiopian food does not taste the same if not cooked in nitter kibbeh.
Ethiopian food guide: what to eat in Ethiopia
The first step of understanding Ethiopian food is to recognize the different platters. Ethiopian food is always served on a large circular metal platter called gebeta. Injera is placed on top of it like a table cloth and different stews, curries, and vegetables are piled atop. From a single dish to a mix of different dishes, everything is piled onto the plate of injera. You can order a mixed platter – meat, vegetarian, or both or simply choose one or two stews/curries of your choice to be placed on your injera. My suggestion, if you are eating alone or as a couple, is to order one or two different stews with each meal, so that you can slowly sample them all. A platter is next to impossible to finish for even two persons.
Maheberawi (Mixed Meat Platter)
This is a carnivore’s dream. Ethiopian meat-based mixed platters come with several stews like key wat (beef stew), tibs (lamb, beef or goat cubes cooked with nitter kibeh and herbs like rosemary), and kitfo (raw ground beef). Make sure to share it with at least two to three people.
Yetsom Beyaynetu (Vegetarian Mixed Platter)
This was my first attempt at Ethiopian food and until now, my favourite food memory from that country. Also known as the fasting platter, yetsom beyaynetu is best suited for vegetarians or travelers who want a slow introduction to Ethiopian food. This mixed platter includes several types of lentil and split pea stews like the delicious shiro, misir wat, alecha kik with gomen (kale), and sils (a spicy tomato stew).
The best of Ethiopian food: you need to try these at least once
- Shiro – I absolutely love this. Simple, hearty, and vegetarian, Shiro is like dal in India. A terracotta red thick stew of chickpea powder and broad beans, Shiro is slow-cooked and flavoured with a generous dose of berbere. Known as ‘fasting food’, Orthodox Christian Ethiopians usually eat shiro on Wednesdays and Fridays, when they abstain from meat and dairy. Although there are regional varieties, shiro can be either soupy thin (shiro wot) or thick (shiro tegamino). Either way, it is delicious.
- Misir wat – A vegetarian staple, misir wat is a red lentil stew. The lentils are slow-cooked until tender with berbere spice powder to give them a nice redness in colour.
- Tibs – This delectable dish comes with a delicious sizzle of chunks of meat (lamb or beef), stir-fried in niter kibbeh, garlic and onion, and served in a clay pot. It is accompanied by fresh greens, injera, sliced fresh green chilli, and plenty of berbere sauce. It is available at nearly all restaurants and the more traditional ones have their own meat counter: slabs of red meat hanging on hooks and a lab coat donned butcher chopping away the best cuts. Meat cannot get fresher than this. Order shekla tibs and strips of meat will arrive at your table roasting atop a clay pot stoked with hot coals.
- Kitfo – This is an acquired taste. Highly popular among the Ethiopians, kitfo is basically lean cuts of ground beef, mixed with chili and butter. Depending upon your taste, it may be served leb leb (warmed, not cooked) or betam leb leb (“very warmed” or cooked). Since kitfo is considered to be a special dish, the cows used are strictly grass-fed, which makes the beef super tender and soft. It is usually paired with ayib, a soft creamy cheese, and sautéed greens. Kitfo is widely eaten on Orthodox Easter Sunday after 55 long days of fasting.
- Doro Wat (Chicken Stew) – In the olden days (and in some rural areas nowadays), an impending Ethiopian bride has to prepare doro wat for her future in-laws as a proof of her culinary skills and worthiness as a wife. It is my favourite meat stew and doro wat comes loaded with berbere, niter kibbeh, chicken, eggs, and lots of flavour.
- Minchet (Spicy Ground Beef Stew) – An essential part of the mixed meat platter, minchet is a stew made from simmered red onions, ground beef, and berbere. It is served topped with a boiled egg or two and takes the center stage of the platter.
- Key Wat (Spicy Beef Stew) – In a key wat, the meat is cut into tiny cubes, before being stewed with a generous amount of berbere, cumin, fenugreek, onions, garlic, and tomato puree.
- Gomen be siga – I simply love this. It came as a part of my first Ethiopian meal and I have ever since become a fan. Made from collard green fried up with some butter, gomen be siga is usually vegetarian unless mixed with garlic, diced beef, and some extra vegetables like cabbage and carrots.
- Gored gored – Featuring raw cubes of the highest quality beef warmed slightly in niter kibbeh and turned with berbere spice, gored gored is an Ethiopian delicacy. I could not bring myself to eat raw meat and was concerned about health risks, so skipped it.
- Chechebsa (kita fir fir) – A breakfast item, chechebsa is made from fluffy kitcha bread shredded into bite sizes pieces, then fried up with some butter and a hint of berbere. I first ate it in Jinka in southern Ethiopia and liked the taste. Chechebsa is served with fresh honey and a bowl of plain yogurt.
- Injera fit fit (fir fir) -This quick and easy leftover dish is made with a day or two old injera and served with leftover shiro wat. The old injera is torn into small bite-size pieces, marinated in the leftover stew of the day, and left in the fridge overnight. The result is a delicious fit fit or fir fir that is moist, juicy, and loaded with juices. It is served cold.
Drinking in Ethiopia
- Ethiopian Coffee or Bunna – Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and it is an integral part of the national culture. Women performing the traditional coffee ceremony is a common sight in Ethiopia and it is an important social function. A traditional full coffee ceremony involves three rounds of coffee. It proceeds from strong (abol) to medium (tona) to weak (baraka), with the final round considered as bestowing a blessing on the coffee drinker. The ceremony begins with the hostess roasting raw green coffee beans in a pan over a charcoal oven. Once the beans have finished roasting, the hostess brings the pan to each person to enjoy the aroma. Simultaneously she lights frankincense to purify and clear the air. Then boiled water and freshly ground coffee beans are mixed together in a jebena, a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot, and the finished coffee is poured gracefully into small, handleless cups.
- Tej – Ethiopia’s distinctive and very delicious honey wine suits all tastes. You can order for a mild to strong flavour. The potency and the slightly beery taste depends on a type of hop leaf used in the brewing. Served in cute pot-bellied bottles called bereles, tej is a must-try alchoholic beverage in Ethiopia.
- Spris -In a spris, the fruits are blended individually and dolloped on top of one another in thick, unmixed layers. No water, sugar, or ice is added. Served only with a squirt of lime on top, this is one glass of delicious natural goodness. Spris is often served with a wedge of sweetened bread.
Follow the rest of the Ethiopia series here
- 20 PHOTOS THAT WILL WANT TO MAKE YOU VISIT ETHIOPIA
- ETHIOPIA TRIP TIPS
- MY ADDIS ABABA MEMORIES
- PHOTO ESSAY OF ADDIS MERCATO
- ADDIS ABABA TO JINKA: AN ETHIOPIAN ROAD TRIP
- OMO VALLEY, THE HUMAN ZOO OF ETHIOPIA
- THE LOWER OMO VALLEY IN ETHIOPIA
- REAL LIFE PHOTOS OF OMO VALLEY TRIBES
- OMO VALLEY TRAVEL GUIDE AND TIPS
- MY LAZY, RELAXING AKSUM DAYS
- TIGRAY ROCK-CUT CHURCHES: A CLIMB OF FAITH
- DANAKIL DEPRESSION IN 15 PHOTOS
- DANAKIL DEPRESSION TRIP
- MY LALIBELA EXPERIENCE
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE