When we headed to Ethiopia recently, I went packing with high expectations of the food. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Ethiopian food fresh out of university. In Washington, D.C., just new to world cuisine, I clearly recall my first pull of a round stretchy pancake-like injera bread, beautifully colored mounds of what looked to me like curries, and a massive circular tin plate from which we all grabbed and chowed down. The flavors and communal style of eating was cool and unusual, like nothing I had experienced before. I wanted to learn more.
After praising the food in Ethiopia upon our recent return – yes, it’s as good on the home turf as it is abroad — I was surprised by how little awareness seemed to exist not only of Ethiopian dishes but also of the distinct existence of the cuisine itself, even among some friends I consider well-traveled and food aware.
This isn’t terribly surprising. After all, how often do you hear someone raving about and posting photos of cuisine from sub-Saharan Africa?
Ethiopia is the exception. With its rich, spicy stews and diversity of flavors, Ethiopian food surely qualifies as one the world’s great stand-alone cuisines.
Considering the country’s history and geography, particularly in situ, it makes sense. The cuisine follows the culture, formed and informed by millennia of trade and exchange with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. Amidst this storm of positive culinary influence, acquired spices blend with Ethiopia’s indigenous ingredients.
And, poof! You get Ethiopian food, a unique table befitting the context.
Here’s what we discovered about Ethiopian food during our time in country: from the basic ingredients and spices that make the cuisine so unique to some of our favorite Ethiopian dishes.
Let’s dig in!
Ethiopian food without injera might be considered heresy by Ethiopians. This spongy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia) is fundamental to every Ethiopian meal.
Injera features a slightly sour flavor that comes from the fermentation of its primary ingredient, a grain called tef. Although we enjoy eating injera, for some it may be an unusual, if not acquired, taste. The tangy flavor, however, seems well-designed to complement the flavors found in Ethiopian stews.
After eating injera across Ethiopia, we also learned that not all injera is created equal. Typically, the lighter the color the higher the quality of the tef grain therein, meaning a smoother, subtler tang. Some injera is deliberately dark, almost to the point of brownish purple.
In traditional Ethiopian meals you’ll often find circles of injera rolled out like a natural plate, atop which are arranged a smattering of spicy stews, cooked vegetables and salads. Although the presentation may appear similar to that of an Indian thali, the flavors and style is uniquely Ethiopian. Restaurants will usually bring out baskets full of additional napkin-rolled injera rounds. One thing is almost certain in Ethiopia – you’ll never ever have to worry about running out of injera during a meal!
Injera is meant to be eaten with your hands. Tear off a small bit with your right hand (as in many countries, eating with one’s left hand is a no-no in Ethiopia) and scoop bits of the stews and various dishes into it, forming a bite sized food parcel and gingerly tuck it into your mouth. Don’t feel embarrassed if you get some of the stew or sauce on your fingers in the process – it’s natural and is part of the fun. Tempted though you may be to lick your fingers, know that Ethiopians don’t care for that practice, either.
Injera tip to beat all injera tips: the best bits of injera are the spice- and sauce-infused patches underneath the piles of stew on the tray!
It’s unlikely you’ll ever emerge hungry from a meal with lots of injera, as it fills the stomach for hours. After a big lunch in Ethiopia, it’s rare that we ate a full dinner later in the day, if we ate at all.
The signature red spice mound that delivers magic to most Ethiopian stews, berbere is composed of ground semi-spicy chili peppers (which themselves are called berbere to further confuse) mixed with upwards of 20 individual herbs, spices and ingredients including garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fenugreek.
Mitmita is another core spice blend composed of chili peppers (smaller and hotter than berbere), cardamom seed, cloves and salt. While mitmita is often turned in meat dishes to add an extra kick during the cooking process, it’s also used as a condiment to lend some additional heat to the meal on one’s plate.
Niter kibbeh, a spiced clarified butter similar to Indian ghee, is one of Ethiopia’s secret, magic ingredients that we all ought to know more about. It’s also pure culinary fusion inspiration.
Niter kibbeh is made by cooking butter together with a raft of ingredients including onions, garlic and ginger and spices like fenugreek, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. After a long simmer, the solids are then strained away from the concoction leaving a delicious clarified butter that adds both richness and distinction to most Ethiopian dishes, especially tibs (stir-fried meat), wats (stews), and gored gored (raw beef).
Ethiopian dining is a social event, a shared experience that is not only delicious but also a shocking amount of fun.
For the first time visitor to the country (or an Ethiopian restaurant), the best place to begin with Ethiopian food is to order a mixed plate – meat, vegetarian, or both — so that you can sample a variety of stews (wats) and dishes at one sitting. Although the mounds delivered to your table may individually appear small, collectively the portions are often staggeringly large. We recommend sharing a plate with others so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Although some dishes may appear regularly in mixed plates, the ones that comprise yours will likely be based on whatever happens to be cooked fresh that day. Always a tasty surprise!
Ethiopian Eating = Sociable Eating: When I consider the Ethiopian style of eating, the word that comes to mind is “thali”, the Indian/South Asian term for a meal composed of samples of various dishes.
After our first big meal in the Ethiopian town of Bahir Dar, I aimed to find out the Ethiopian equivalent of this term. So I took a photo of our meal to the bartender at the hotel where we were staying and asked him. After a few false starts, including a round of identifying each of the dishes in the image, the man explained that this was “soshabie” style.
“Can you write it down?” I asked. He did, in English and Amharic script.
After receiving the piece of paper, I went to the internet to confirm this “soshabie” style of eating. Nothing. I posted it to Facebook anyway, proud that I’d unearthed a new term for Ethiopian eating that no other writer had previously discovered.
I later took the piece of paper to our guide, Fekadu. After puzzling over it, he began laughing. “It’s sociable food. The only reason I know this is that he spelled sociable phonetically using Amharic letters.”
So while there’s no special term like “thali” to describe the Ethiopian style of eating where everyone gathers around a big platter to share, there’s always a story. And perhaps a cultural lesson, too.
Maheberawi (Meat Mixed Plate)
Ethiopian meat-based mixed plates usually combine 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). We highly recommend ordering one of these and sharing it with at least two to three people.
Yetsom Beyaynetu (Vegetarian Mixed Plate)
Also known as a fasting platter, yetsom beyaynetu is a mixed vegetarian plate that usually includes several types of lentil and split pea stews (e.g., misir wat, alecha kik or mesir kik) with kale (gomen) and a spicy tomato stew (sils). Talk about a vegetarian – if not a vegan — dream.
Yetsom Beyaynetu is usually available in restaurants in Ethiopia on Wednesday and Friday when practicing Orthodox Ethiopians (the majority of the population) forego meat and dairy products. These dishes are also readily available during the fasting periods before Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas and Easter. Bigger restaurants that are more accustomed to foreigners may offer a vegetarian fasting plate every day, while smaller local restaurants may not.
Recommended Restaurant: The best yetsom beyaynetu we ate in Ethiopia was at Four Sisters Restaurant in Gondar. The staff may encourage the buffet as all the vegetarian dishes are there, but if you order the fasting plate straight from the menu it is cheaper and prettier, and still quite plentiful. Seven Olives Restaurant in Lalibela also serves up a decent yetsom beyaynetu.
A Note for Vegetarians and Vegans Traveling in Ethiopia
Consider traveling in Ethiopia just prior to Orthodox Easter and Orthodox Christmas, as you will be virtually guaranteed to find vegetarian food at this time. During these periods, more strict Ethiopians observe a fast and forgo meat and dairy products for upwards of 50 days. Fasting plates served during these periods are terrifically delicious, and may not always be available in restaurants during non-fasting periods — particularly when locals are ravenous for meat, just after the conclusion of the fast.
Doro Wat (Chicken Stew)
This rich chicken stew is one of Ethiopia’s most famous dishes. We were told that when an Ethiopian girl wants to marry, she has to make doro wat for her fiancé’s family as a demonstration of her culinary proficiency and thus worthiness to be chosen as a wife. While this traditional cooking exam may still hold in rural areas, it is quickly dying out in Ethiopian cities.
Doro wat takes forever to make, which is why it is often only served during holidays and on special occasions. It involves slow cooking red onions, berbere and chicken parts for hours, until just the right consistency and blend of flavors has been achieved.
We were fortunate to enjoy a home-cooked version of doro wat at our guide’s friend’s girlfriend’s house. Though the connection was tenuous and the meal difficult to photograph, the taste was wonderful.
Doro wat is difficult to find at restaurants due to the amount of time it takes to prepare, but it is worth making the extra effort to seek it out. Ask your guide, other locals and hotel or restaurant staff well in advance of your meal and they may be able to point you in the direction of where to find it. If it’s not on a restaurant’s standard menu, ask if you can pre-order it for that night or for the following day.
Minchet (Spicy Ground Beef Stew)
Quite often our favorite meat dish, minchet is often placed at the center of a maheberawi (mixed meat plate). This ground meat stew is made from simmered red onions blended with ground beef and berbere. It’s often served topped with a boiled egg or two. Apparently you can ask for a low-spice version, too.
Key Wat (Spicy Beef Stew)
Similar to minchet, but made with meat chunks instead of minced meat. Also served with a boiled egg on top, in the middle of a mixed plate.
Tibs (Stir-Fried Meat)
Cubes of meat (beef, lamb or goat) stir-fried with onions, peppers and other vegetables in niter kibbeh. Quite often, twigs of rosemary or other herbs are added to it. Tibs can also be served spicy with some berbere thrown in. A simple and unassuming dish that’s got more flavor than you would imagine.
Gomen Be Sega (Meat with Vegetables)
Beef or lamb simmered in copious amounts of niter kibbeh with collard greens and other vegetables like carrots, cabbage and onions. On the occasions we tried gomen be sega, the meat was tough but the vegetables were absolute perfection thanks to the blended flavor of the meat and spiced clarified butter.
Kifto, raw lean ground beef blended with berbere, is another signature dish of Ethiopia. Think of it as the Ethiopian version of the French raw beef steak tartare. As such, visitors will earn bonus points from locals for eating this. Before you judge kitfo and yell “OMG, raw meat in Ethiopia!”, we suggest you give it try. You may look at eating raw meat – and doing so in Ethiopia — in a whole new light.
Recommended Restaurant: The best kitfo we ate: Lake Shore Restaurant in Bahir Dar. It also helped that this was Easter day so the meat was incredibly fresh and rolling out of the kitchen as if it were going out of style.
Raw meat fine dining at its best. Gored gored features raw cubes of the highest quality beef warmed slightly in spiced Ethiopian butter (niter kibbeh) and turned with berbere spice. Even if you try kitfo and decide that raw meat is not for you, we recommend that you still give gored gored a try. When done well, it’s a spectacularly flavored and textured dish.
Restaurant recommendation: Order gored gored at one of the Kategna Restaurant locations in Addis Ababa. The meat is high quality, the flavor incredibly delicious.
Shiro (Chickpea Stew)
Both a fast food and a fasting food, shiro is a vegetarian stew made from chickpea flour mixed with berbere and other spices. It can be served either thick (tagamino) or thin (feses). Although shiro often serves as the center of a yetsom beyaynetu fasting plate, you’ll also find it served on its own. For vegetarians, this is reliable and widely available.
Mesir Wat (Red Lentil Stew) and Kik Wat (Split Pea Stew)
A rich and spicy red lentil stew, mesir wat was among our favorite staples on a fasting plate. Made with sautéed onions, berbere, cardamom and other spices, misir wat is the ultimate vegetarian comfort food.
A similarly styled stew made with split peas is called kik wat.
Kik Alicha (Split Pea Stew)
A non-spicy split pea stew made with turmeric, kik alicha helps balance out all the other flavors and spice on an Ethiopian plate. Although kik alicha does not pack a lot of heat, it still features a lot of flavor.
Gomen (Kale or Collard Greens)
Gomen is a simple, flavorful dish made from kale (or collard greens), onions, niter kibbeh and other spices sauteed and simmered together. Gomen made a regular appearance on vegetarian platters and is a welcome addition amongst all those lentils and beans.
Sils (Tomato Stew)
A savory tomato stew made from blended roasted onions, tomatoes, and berbere, sils provides a one-part tart and one-part sweet balance to the greens and beans on a vegetarian platter.
If you tire of injera and traditional food and order pasta in Ethiopia, it’s likely that sils will form the base of your pasta’s red sauce. A unique and roasted twist on Italian pasta sauce.
Kolo (Roasted Barley)
Kolo became our go-to beer snack at the end of the day. It’s often served mixed with peanuts and other seeds or nuts. Hearty and healthy, it pairs nicely with a St. George beer at the end of a long day.
Fir-Fir (or Fit-Fit)
Made of sliced pieces of injera turned in berbere sauce or leftover wat, fir-fir is a traditional and hearty (some may say heavy) way to start your day.
If you enjoy heat like we do and you’d like to further spice your Ethiopian meal, here are a couple of additional spice condiment items to consider requesting at an Ethiopian restaurant. Not only will your food be spicier, but you’ll also likely impress or puzzle your hosts with the request.
A typical and traditional dark red spice sauce made of berbere blended with water or oil. In traditional Ethiopian restaurants unaccustomed to tourists, it’s typical for this to be served automatically with your meal. In Ethiopian restaurants that cater more to tourists, you may have to ask for it.
A thick, pulverized chili topping. We came across a red chili variety and a green variety that tasted like a blend of Ethiopian low-heat green chilis and green herbs.
Da’ta is especially good if you’d like to spice up western food (e.g., pasta) when you’re taking a break from traditional Ethiopian fare.
Coffee in Ethiopia, the land where it was first discovered, is a treat not only because the quality of the coffee is very high, but also because its preparation is careful and elaborate. Regardless of whether you take your coffee in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony or from an Italian espresso machine (a legacy of the short Italian occupation of Ethiopia during World War II), you are likely to be pleasantly surprised.
A traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony will likely take at least twenty minutes from start to finish for the first cup of coffee, but it is worth the wait. It begins with your host, always a woman, roasting raw green coffee beans in a pan over a small charcoal oven. When the beans have finished roasting, your host will bring the pan to each person present so that he may enjoy the aroma. At the same time, she’ll light some frankincense to purify and clear the air. Popcorn is usually served as a snack.
The boiled water and freshly ground coffee beans are mixed together in a jebena, a traditional coffee pot, and a magic process — one that only the host knows to ensure a perfect cup of strong coffee — ensues. The coffee is then poured gracefully into small, handleless cups.
Traditionally, a full coffee ceremony involves three rounds of coffee that proceed from strong (abol) to medium (tona) to weak (baraka), with the final round considered as bestowing a blessing on the coffee drinker.
Coffee ceremonies serve an important social function beyond the actual coffee consumed. Our guide told us that women in the community used to gather each afternoon for a coffee ceremony that takes several hours to finish, thereby ensuring ample time to discuss all news and family issues. Coffee meetings such as these rotate from house to house in a community group, so as to give each of the hosts a break.
Ethiopian Coffee Recommendation: If you are looking for a truly outstanding espresso or macchiato, pay a visit to Tomoca in Addis Ababa. This unassuming coffee roaster and café features a decor of a bygone era and serves up an incredibly rich brew at the hands of a couple masterful baristas. It’s also a good place to purchase whole bean or ground Ethiopian coffee to take home as gifts.
Tej (Honey Wine or Mead)
An Ethiopian local specialty, tej is a honey wine featuring varying degrees of sweetness. The first batch we tried was almost like a dessert wine (our guide called it “the children’s version”). We took our second taste of a cloudy, earthy and higher alcohol tej in a tej betoch (honey wine house) and nightclub in Lalibela.
Tej is usually served in a rounded vase-like or beaker-like glass container called a berele. Although it’s typical to order one berele per person, drinker beware if you manage to finish it all.
A traditional Ethiopian beer made from tef, barley, maize or other grains blended with a green herb called gesho. Tella is usually brewed at home. You’ll often find it in grimy, nondescript plastic bottles lurking in the doorways of local homes. Alcohol concentrations vary widely.
During one of our monster lunch Ethiopian food gorging sessions, I asked Fekadu, our guide: “What do Ethiopians do when they get an upset stomach?”
His response without skipping a beat: “We take a shot of araki.”
Araki is essentially the Ethiopian version of grappa (firewater or moonshine, if you like). If the name sounds like Greek raki or Balkan rakia, that’s because it’s likely descended from or related to the Mediterranean distilled spirits of a similar name. It’s made from gesho leaves and features an alcohol level of around 45%. No wonder it is good for an upset stomach. It likely kills anything in its path, bacteria included.
Talk to anyone who likes a beer about their experience in Ethiopia and they might wax long about St. George beer. It’s not an incredible beer — and there are certainly other, more complex beers for those who search — but it is tasty enough, particularly after a long day of rock-hewn church hopping.
Be sure to check out the St. George beer label in detail. It’s one of the more colorful and notable beer labels in this part of the world.
Other Ethiopian beers in order of our preference include Dashen, Bedele, Castel, Harar and Meta.
Ethiopia makes wine? Turns out that it does. We had no idea, either.
Although some Ethiopian wines are unimpressive — sweet and appropriate for aperitif drinking (e.g., Axumit) — it’s rumored that French winemakers have been brought on board to help.
If the oak aged Rift Valley Syrah 2013 (of Castel Winery) is any indication of the future, the situation for Ethiopian wine is looking up. This wine is drinkable straight out of the bottle (or aired for a bit) on its own or paired with doro wat, mesir wat or shiro.
Less remarkable, though still good, is the Rift Valley Merlot 2013.
Although restaurants and hotels may sell these wines at the equivalent of $15/bottle, we were able to find each of them at approximately $7 from a night club in Lalibela. It never hurts to ask.
Ethiopian food demonstrates that we are a product of cultural and culinary evolution. A blend of influences, experiments and vessels carrying flavors that were once unknown.
If you’d like some homework, we have two suggestions:
- Find an Ethiopian restaurant near you, gather together some friends and go. Sample widely, don’t over-order, marvel at the injera bread with your eyes and mouth.
- Experiment with cooking Ethiopian food at home and try a full range of some of the dishes above.
Both of these will inspire you to travel to the source one day.
Melkam megeb! (መልካም ምግብ)
A huge thanks goes to Fekadu Tesfaye, our G Adventures CEO (guide), who was incredibly patient and helpful with all our questions about Ethiopian food. When we showed our curiosity about Ethiopian cuisine, Fekadu made things happen for all of us — arranging a coffee ceremony and doro wat tasting at a friend of a friend’s home, coming across a village preparing food for a 500-person wedding, and organizing an impromptu cooking class.
Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Ethiopia Highlights Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!