9 Foods You Can’t Miss in Ethiopia
Rich in flavors, colors, textures and variety, Ethiopian cuisine is one of the most enticing you’ll ever come across. A kaleidoscope of influences and an eclectic history make it utterly unique in all of Sub-Saharan Africa.
If you want to discover a mouthwatering taste of the Mediterranean in Africa, then let this be your next unforgettable, foodie-delight holiday destination.
Unlike many other parts of Central and Southern Africa, Ethiopian cuisine offers an incredible variety of dishes, most of which are vegetarian and vegan. This is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the cuisine of Ethiopia and that of its immediate neighbors, like Kenya and Sudan, both of which are heavily reliant on fatty meats and a carb-based main of either rice or white flour-based bread. With an abundance of vegetables, as well as herbs and spices, Ethiopian cuisine can revolutionize your whole opinion of African cuisine. Spend but a day here and you’ll soon realize that food is one of Ethiopia’s most prized highlights.
The art of eating in Ethiopia
Much like Indian meals, there’s no elegant way of eating in Ethiopia. This is arguably the most endearing aspect of the local cuisine. There are no bowls, side plates, knives and forks here. Just an oversized injera pancake (you’ll discover what that is below), dollops of exceptionally tasty delights, and your (hopefully) squeaky-clean fingers. Tear away a piece of injera with your right hand, use it as a spoon to scoop up food and drop the whole scrumptious pocket straight in your mouth. There is an art to doing this so that your fingers never touch your lips. If you can master this, you’ll already be a step ahead of countless tourists, myself included! Luckily, locals are graciously accommodating in this regard and will certainly never reprimand you for not getting it quite right.
Eating in Ethiopia is a very social event and, like in most of Asia, all dishes are meant to be shared, making a messy event even messier! If you’re ever lucky enough to be invited to share a meal with locals, do not panic if your host insists on feeding you. Literally. With his/her fingers! This may seem an incredibly bizarre thing to do, but in this country it is an absolute privilege to be ‘fed’ by your host, and this ancient tradition (called gursha) is a sign of friendship, respect, and loyalty.
Once you understand the social aspects of dining in Ethiopia, it time to decide which delectable treat you want to try! You can decide where you want to start on the list, but these 9 foods can’t be missed.
9 Ethiopian foods you can’t miss
In Ethiopia, the carb of choice is the injera, a flat pancake-like staple that’s used, instead of cutlery, to mop up food and sauces. Because injera is made of sourdough it is both filling and delectably ‘sour’. An acquired taste no doubt, injera tastes a little odd on its own, but the sourdough flavor perfectly enhances the stews with which it is served. Injera looks like a sponge and certainly feels like a sponge, and combined with the stews it could soon become one of your favorite highlights. Made from a fermented gluten-free grain called tef, injera is the most fundamental base of any Ethiopian meal.
The staple chili sauce of choice, berbere is made from ground red chilies and a combination of at least 20 other spices, including cinnamon, cumin, ginger, coriander, garlic and many more. No matter what other dishes you order, there will always be a corner of injera smothered in this delicious paste.
The chicken stew to end all chicken stews is Ethiopia’s national dish and consists of chicken pieces and (more often than not) hard boiled eggs, cooked in a spicy and tangy tomato-based sauce.
One of my absolute favorite injera-accompaniments was shiro, a chickpea based sauce cooked with lentils and berbere that can either be runny (shiro wot) or perfectly thick (shiro tegamino). “Tegamino’ is also an Italian word and the name for the small terracotta pot in which the shiro is cooked.
Do note that Ethiopian cuisine is rich in pulses, and you’ll find plenty of shiro variations with red and green lentils, and beans as well.
For the first-time visitor who may have a difficult time deciphering an Ethiopian menu, mixed plates of half a dozen dishes, served on injera, are simply ideal. These platters make up the great majority of meals served in street-side restaurants and are a great way of savoring various local dishes in just one sitting. Whether meat based (maheberawi) or vegetarian (yetsom beyaynetu), Ethiopian mixed platters are heavenly, as dishes change regularly depending on what’s been freshly cooked. This way you never need to eat the same combination twice and you’ll get to savor dozens of dishes in just the first few days in the country.
Carnivores like my beloved other half soon get addicted to tibs, a dish of stir fried meat that’s cooked with garlic, rosemary and, in fancier places, even a dash of white wine. This simple and quite unassuming dish is spectacularly tasty and, on request, can be made berbere free. This is heaven-sent if you’ve been in the country a while and feel you need a break from all the spice.
There was no going back once I discovered kitfo, or the Ethiopian version of a steak tartare, whereby raw mince is mixed with herbs and berbere (of course) and served with a tomato sauce. In this particular case, I do recommend you try it in popular restaurants that specialize in it, as you’ll know the meat is super fresh.
Ethiopians are just nuts about their coffee and, being Italian myself, this is something with which I related wholeheartedly. The macchiato (a short black with a dash of frothed up hot milk) is quite legendary in Ethiopia and considered one of the most ancient and authentic drinks in the country. Funnily enough, most Ethiopians don’t realize that this is, in fact, one of the many legacies left behind by Italian troops who were all over the country in the early 1930s. I even had a barista argue with me that macchiato is an Ethiopian word, even though it literally means ‘stained’ in Italian. As in the espresso – as opposed to a caffé latte – is only “stained” with milk, not drowned in it.
In case you’re wondering, Ethiopia serves up the very best coffee of any country south of the Sahara and there’s a reason for this. Ethiopia is credited with being the birthplace of coffee. Nomadic tribes in the 10th century are believed to be the first people to recognize coffee’s stimulating effects — although those tribes ate the cherries from the plant rather than the beans we use to make the hot beverage today.
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is something that’s internationally renowned and an incredible tradition whose precise origins are unknown. Although you can certainly grab yourself a macchiato in two minutes flat, at one of Addis Ababa’s many cafés, partaking in an hour-long traditional ceremony here is an absolute must.
In Ethiopia, the long and tedious coffee ceremony is arguably the most important social tradition in any household. Usually officiated by the youngest woman of the house, it involves making coffee for family and guests, starting from roasting raw coffee beans over an open coal stove. After the beans are roasted, they are ground by hand in a traditional mortar and pestle (called a mukecha) and finally brewed for at least 5-7 minutes, before the by-now very aromatic coffee is finally served. Traditionally, a coffee ceremony involves serving, and enjoying, three cups of coffee, all made from the same ground beans. Usually served alongside freshly made popcorn, a Sunday coffee ceremony can easily take up half an afternoon. This is a time when families gather and spend some quality time together. Being invited to attend a family’s coffee ceremony is one of the most delightful honors you could ever receive in Ethiopia.