The food of Ethiopia is unlike any western cuisine. Served on a communal platter and eaten with pieces of bread instead of fork and spoon, it has an exotic flavor and uses exotic ingredients. Ethiopians eat things we don’t normally eat in the US like sheep and goat. At the same time, things we consider common everyday foods in the US, like chicken, are special treats for the Ethiopians.
The chicken gets cooked into a stew called Doro Wot. It is rich and copper brown and something worthy of a big occasion like a birthday or special guest.
We had to be careful about things like not eating uncooked food. No fresh salad, no fresh fruit and water only if bottled. This put a small cloud of doubt over each meal, wondering if we missed something. Every rumble in the tummy tends to make you think, “uh oh, is this the day I spend in the bathroom?”
I am pleased to report, however, that neither of us experienced any illness or digestive distress the entire trip. This is particularly fortunate because we ate “local food” pretty much everyday, and were pretty adventurous.
We loved the food and the experience of dining Ethiopian style; but, I will admit to having days when I really just wanted a plain bowl of pasta and a fresh salad.
The essence of Ethiopian food is all about the Injera. Injera (sometimes spelled enjera) is a spongy pancake-like bread that is eaten with everything. It is plate, silverware, and meal, made with a grain called teff, a nutritious high fiber, high protein staple. The Ethiopians start with a dough that rises from natural yeasts, similar to sourdough. From this they make a batter the consistency of pancake batter. and pour it on a hot round griddle. They start on the outside of the circle moving toward the center and flip it once.
The full “loaf” is about 2 feet in diameter and they either roll them and put the rolls in a basket or they fold them like dinner napkins. To eat a full one of these, along with the food you pick up with the bread is a full day’s calorie intake!
Part of the secret is the highly porous nature of the bread. Those little holes in the bread pick up sauce and food as you use it to eat. Then, it seems to expand significantly in your stomach. As a result, it’s very easy to overeat because the food is so delicious and every bite includes a piece of bread, and then it all expands to triple the size inside your stomach.
I decided when I returned that I would go on the all-enjera diet because one meal of this bread and we literally would not be hungry again all day!
Every meal is served with Injera, and preparation for a party involves making a giant basket of them.
The food is exotic–delicious, but very different. There is a spice mix called berbere that is common to almost all of the food. It has some familiar ingredients like chili peppers, garlic, and ginger; but, it has a lot of elements that I have never heard of, things that are not familiar to the western pantry and give the food its exotic flavor.
While not mild, heat is not the dominant flavor. For real heat you add a spice mix called mitmita. This dry powder is serious heat and really delicious! It is often served on the side for dipping pieces of meat.
The Fantastic Cooks and Their Hard Work
I was able to buy a kilo of spice mix at the market, but most people make their own and it is a LOT of work! Painstakingly picking by hand, through lentils, grains, and chili peppers, women, for the most part spend their days drying and grinding spices and sifting through grains.
In fact, one of the more pleasant sights everywhere we went was tarps out on the sidewalk with chili’s, grains, and spices drying in the sun. It didn’t matter where we were, the city, the country, a high-rise apartment building, someone’s spice mixture would be out getting sun-dried.
The people who make this food are almost always hired cooks. When I remarked that in the US having a cook is considered a luxury, my friend Messi said, it’s just a cultural thing in Ethiopia. If you’re poor she said, you find someone poorer to be your cook.
One reason for this is that food is more difficult to get. There are no Safeway’s or large supermarkets where you can get everything you need. Getting the groceries often involves live animals. It’s hard work to put together a daily meal in this country.
That said, it still is unusual for a middle class American to see a family like mine with a cook! Everytime we went to someone’s house for dinner I made a point to speak with the cook and ask her how she made the dish and take selfie’s, and compliment her cooking. My hosts often looked at me like I had gone downstairs at Downton Abbey! I couldn’t stop myself. These beautiful women never stopped smiling and fed me everywhere I went!
One of my favorite flavorings was a chili sauce called awazi. This was essentially berbere mixed with oil or clarified butter. Awaze was the key ingredient in a dish called kategna, which was one of our favorite things we ate there. A fresh injera is made and spread with awaze, and then another enjera is put on top of it and browned.
There were countless little pastes and sauces that would be frequently served on the side as a sort of condiment. Sometimes green, sometimes red, it always packed a lively heat, and tons of flavor!
I have already mentioned Doro Wot, but another of my favorite dishes was Shiro Tegabeno. Shiro is a lentil powder that is cooked to the consistency of hummus. It is flavored with vegetables and berbere and when served tagabeno style it is sautéed and browned with veggies in a skillet. It had a fresh lively taste and was very filling!
One day in the city of Gondar, we stopped for coffee at a little restaurant in Gondar in the middle of the afternoon. The woman who owned it was so pleased that Americans were in her restaurant she said she was going to make food for us. As I mentioned, we had been pretty careful about what and where we ate as the risk of getting sick was always present.
When this woman said she was making us food, my wife and I exchanged a concerned look. We were with some newly made friends and one of them leaned over to me and said, “This woman is very poor and works very hard and she’s making a dish for free because she is so proud to have you sample it. You have to eat it, it would be extremely rude not to!”
That was all he needed to say, and when the sheep tibs came out with a green chili paste on the side, we devoured it. It was delicious and there were no unpleasant results. It was, in fact, one of those experiences that was very poignant and frankly would have been worth an evening with the Immodium!
When we arrived, our friends took us on day 1 to Kategna. I noticed that Anthony Bourdain, on his show Parts Unknown, also went straight to this restaurant. Right in the heart of bustling Addis Ababa, this was a superb introduction to the cuisine, the culture, and the crowd!
We ate at some interesting restaurants, Ben Abeba in Lalibela was absolutely one of them. Perched on the edge of a mountain overlooking an awe-inspiring view, this funky piece of modern architecture is run by a Scottish woman and her Ethiopian business partner and was gorgeous! We ate there twice and one stand-out dish was the Ethiopian style shepherd’s pie!
We also ate at Finfine Adarash a low-key local restaurant in Addis that we just happened upon. Set in open air, and very friendly, this was yet one more reason to feel comfortable in this amazing country.
The goat is a longer story that I will save for another post (and link back to here) but here is the short version. On one of our final days there was to be a bit of a going away feast and we went to purchase a live goat. We haggled, purchased and then transported that goat and a nearby butcher (in the back of the SUV) to the house where the goat was promptly butchered, cut up in tiny pieces and cooked outdoors on a giant iron plate.
While many of you reading this now are feeling queasy, I can tell you that this was one of our best and most memorable meals and in a later posting I will relate my perspective on witnessing the slaughter of an animal.
There’s no question I have a fonder taste for Ethiopian food now that I have spent a little time there. But if you have the chance to visit an Ethiopian restaurant here in the states, GO DO IT! You might not like it, and you might feel uncomfortable, but it is an exotic event that will linger in your memory as well as your tastebuds. It’s a wonderfully social event and unique to eastern Africa.
When they bring the communal platter to your table and set it on the wicker table with its large woven lid called a mesob, trust me when I tell you, delicious adventure can be found under that lid!