Written By Roshni Bose.
Ethiopia located in eastern Africa, also known as the “Horn of Africa”, is a landlocked country and one of the oldest nations in the world with its capital in Addis Ababa. Fossils of Lucy, the oldest hominin ever discovered, also inhabited Ethiopia.
Ethiopians proudly proclaim that Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that has never been colonized. Safe to say, Ethiopia has many wonders and just so happens, Ethiopian food is one of them.
Ethiopian food is a perfect blend of spices and fresh ingredients. The country is famous for its organically grown meat, vegetables and herbs.
The food is rich and spicy and eating in Ethiopia is a communal experience as everyone eats from the same plate. So let’s get into what dishes you should be indulging in if you want to experience the celebration that is Ethiopian food.
1. The Ubiquitous Injera
Ethiopia’s main staple is called Injera, a pancake flatbread without which an Ethiopian meal is simply incomplete. Evidence shows Injera cooking dates back to 600 AD with the excavation of mitads, traditional round hot plates, in the city of Aksum.
Injera is made from nutritious, gluten-free grain teff which is also the smallest grain in the world and is grown exclusively in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It also has plenty of Lysine, an essential amino acid that increases calcium absorption and helps lower bad cholesterol levels.
It contains an excellent amount of fibre, calcium, potassium and protein. The batter is fermented for about three days and finally fried on a round flat pan. Injera is laid out on a round plate with rich meat and vegetarian stews served on top of it.
Having a plate of spicy, tangy Firfir in the morning for breakfast will definitely get you started with all the energy you’ll need for the day. Firfir is essentially shredded Injera cooked with spiced clarified butter and a generous topping of hot spice, berbere. The dish is often served over a layer of Injera which can be wrapped around Firfir.
Firfir is also prepared using Kitcha. Kitcha is an unleavened bread made with wheat flour, water and salt and the firfir is cooked using the same recipe as injera firfir. This dish can be made both vegetarian, as well as, non-vegetarian served with beef.
Another deliciously filling breakfast option is genfo. Genfo is a porridge made with either wheat (yesindie genfo) or barley (yegena genfo), with hole in the middle to serve a dipping sauce using a mixture of seasoned clarified butter and berbere spice. The dish is often served with a scoop of yoghurt garnish.
If the spicy firfir and genfo don’t wake you up, a steaming cup of Ethiopian coffee will at once. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee but along with a deep-rooted history, coffee also influences the country’s economy by generating 60% of the country’s foreign income.
It is an integral part of Ethiopian culture and every brew is celebrated by an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The coffee beans are roasted and only after the release of the aromas, the coffee is boiled using a clay pot, known as jebena.
The ceremony is accompanied by the burning of frankincense. A cup of coffee is often served along with a side of toasted barley or more recently, popcorn.
Ethiopian coffee is famous for its wine-like quality and distinct acidity which can be soothed by dipping a herb named rue in the beverage, which in turn takes away the bitterness. While there’s a variety of high-quality beans such as yirgacheffe, sidamo and harrar available, coffee arabica also originates in Ethiopia.
If you’re vegan in Ethiopia, you’re in luck. Ethiopia has a plethora of delicious vegetarian options and shiro happens to be one of them.
It is a thick consistent stew made with chickpea powder, broad bean or lentils spiced with the berbere powder, cooked over a low flame. To enhance the flavours, Ethiopians also add to the curry, minced onions, ginger-garlic and sometimes, chopped tomato.
The spicy stew is served over a sheet of injera and is mostly eaten during Lent, Ramadan and other fasting seasons to maintain an animal-free diet. But, a non-vegetarian variation adding clarified butter and meat can also be created and is known as bozena shiro.
A vegetarian platter in Ethiopia is called bayonet and is most popular on Wednesdays and Fridays as most Ethiopians don’t eat meat on these days. On a giant platter laid with injera, a handful of vegetarian dishes are served on it.
These include berbere lentils (yemisir wot), yellow split peas with turmeric sauce (yekik alicha), green lentils with turmeric sauce (misir alicha), cabbage, carrots & potatoes (tikil gomen), Ethiopian green salad, and a popular Ethiopian tomato salad, and of course, shiro. Ethiopians really mean it when they eat your vegetables.
Kitfo is minced raw beef marinated in a chilli-powder spice blend (mitmita) and clarified butter with herbs and spices. Yes, you read that right.
The story of raw meat dates centuries, although no one knows the exact date, during war times when the enemy troops would identify the location of the Ethiopian soldiers by the smell and smoke coming from roasting meat and that ignited this the traditional way of eating raw meat.
Kitfo is served with a side of gomen (collard green with spice) and a few kinds of cheese, including ayibe, served with injera.
8. Doro Wat
In case raw meat isn’t your forte, don’t worry as you’ve yet to try the very special doro wat. Doro wat or chicken stew is regarded as the national dish of Ethiopia. Doro wat is cooked only on special occasions such as new year and Ethiopian festivals and is feasted upon during fasting seasons such as Genna or Timkat.
It is cooked in grind onions cooked slowly for over an hour, seasoned with Berbere with chicken (cleaned thoroughly with chickpea powder and lemon juice) marinated in fermented teff batter and boiled eggs are finally added to the curry.
The gravy is extremely rich and all the spices are well pronounced, served on injera which absorbs all its flavours.
9. Asa Tibs
Asa tibs are the most delicious way of having fried fish. The fish used is fresh tilapia fish, cultivated in the country’s freshwaters. The fish is shredded into bite-size pieces and sauteed with vegetables and berbere powder and garnished with lemon. The tibs can also be made in chicken or beef and is a relished street food in Ethiopia.
10. Fruit Juice
Ethiopian Fruit Juice is available everywhere in Ethiopia and is a treat, especially after a heavy meal to support digestion. It is almost a thick smoothie made with multiple fruits such as avocado, strawberries, fresh mangoes, papayas and more.
Not only is this absolutely delicious, but it’s also extremely filling and quiet pretty to look at. If this one doesn’t scream how healthy and nutritious Ethiopian cuisine actually is, nothing else will.
Addis Mercato in the capital city, Addis Ababa is a large open-air market place that has vendors and cooks bustling before the city even wakes up. At three in the morning, the market has already started selling out. It is often easy to spot people carrying bags of vegetables and fruits weighing up to almost 150 kilograms.
Onion is the most significant part of Ethiopian cuisine and is used exhaustively in their dishes, so the markets are packed with giant bags of red onions and one must be careful to not knock them over. Juicy lemons, fresh vegetables like carrots, cabbages, tomatoes and more and fruits like mangoes, papayas, etc., can also be seen carried by locals on their shoulders.
In southern Ethiopia, Arba Minch is famous for its fish because of lakes like lake Abaya and Chamo present in the area. Driving further south to the Konso village, one might come across an ocean of banana plants and this is where the country’s banana supply is harvested.
The Konso village is home to crops like sorghum and moringa plants. Sorghum balls and moringa leaves cooked together are starchy and nutty in taste and are extremely rich in protein.
In another southern Gamo Gofa Zone, the Dorze ethnic group prepares a meal made from false banana plants or ensete. A porridge made with a fermented false banana mixed with garlic-infused clarified butter and powdered fenugreek adds a bitter flavour, at the same time the dish tastes sour and savoury with a chewy texture to it.
Dorze makes a tea out of coffee leaves which are manually crushed to get its juices out and then is boiled with garlic, chilli powder and onions, and makes a brilliant remedy for cold.
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Roshni Bose is a contributor at The Strong Traveller. She is a culinary arts student who loves writing about her experiences with food. She’s keen on exploring and understanding the differences and intersection of all cultures. Introverted, yet a lover of people, Roshni loves to express her thoughts through writing.