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Ethiopian food is something that most westerners have little knowledge of. If you’ve never traveled to Ethiopia or happened upon an Ethiopian cafe at home, it’s likely you have no idea what Ethiopian cultural food entails.

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During our travels in Ethiopia, we took a food tour of the capital, Addis Ababa. We learned all about the traditions of Ethiopian food and even got to experience a traditional coffee ceremony. The tour offered a great introduction to Ethiopian food and prepared us for what ended up being a 3-week long Ethiopian culinary adventure! 

A traditional Ethiopian food paired with injera
Ethiopian feast!

If you’re curious about this unique east African cuisine, what ingredients are used, how it is eaten, or you’re wondering what is injera, read on to discover all the of the best Ethiopian dishes and cuisine.

Ethiopian Food: The Basics

What is Injera?

Injera is the lifeblood and a staple of Ethiopian cuisine. Injera is a type of a crepe, made out of sourdough that has a bit of a foamy, spongy texture. It is made from the ground seeds of teff grass, a grain plant native to Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, other grain flours such as wheat, barley, and corn may be substituted.

Injera, the main ingredient in every Ethiopian dish
Injera, the main ingredient in every Ethiopian dish

In most cases, injera only contains two ingredients – ground teff seeds (teff flour) and water. These are mixed together and left to ferment. When the batter is ready, it is ladled onto a large flat pan called a mitad in a spiral motion.

Normally, injeras are about 50 centimetres in diameter and are eaten with your hands. Ethiopians use pieces of injera like to pick up the accompanying food.

Men winnowing and sorting teff, to make Ethiopian food, Injera. Photo by Rya Kilpatrick Via Flickr CC.
Men winnowing and sorting teff, to make Injera. Photo by Ryan Kilpatrick Via Flickr CC

Berbere Spice

Ethiopian food is notoriously spicy and most often contains a wide mixture of different spices. This mixture is most often referred to as Berbere spices and usually contains garlic, chilli powder, basil, and ginger, among others. It ranges from light orange to deep red in colour and provides a base for many Ethiopian dishes. 

Berbere Spice used in Ethiopian Food. Photo by Ethiopian Shop via Flickr CC
Berbere Spice. Photo by Ethiopian Shop via Flickr CC

Fasting in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a very religious country and as a result, religion dictates some of the Ethiopian cultural food habits in the country, as well as when fasting should be observed.

Fasting Ethiopian dish, a selection of vegetarian/vegan stews and injera
Fasting Ethiopian dish, a selection of vegetarian/vegan stews and injera

The two main religious groups in Ethiopia are Orthodox Christian and Islam. In the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, fasting is required during the entire season of Lent as well as abstaining from eating meat and other animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays. In the Islamic tradition, fasting is required from dawn until dusk during the month of Ramadan.

On average, devoted locals will fast for around 165 to 250 days a year. We quickly learned that most Ethiopians are truly devoted tot eh fasting schedule as meat dishes were not easy to find on Wednesday and Fridays.

Vegetarian/Vegan Food

Since there are so many religious restrictions on meat intake in Ethiopia, it’s very common and easy to find vegetarian and even vegan dishes in the country.

Vegan aka fasting meal in Ethiopia
Vegan aka fasting meal in Ethiopia

In fact, it is one of the most vegan-friendly destinations in the world, as everyone in the country understands the concept of a vegan diet (or as the locals call it – fasting).

(Keep reading for a deeper dive into some of the best vegan Ethiopian dishes)

A Typical Ethiopian Meal

A typical Ethiopian meal will always include injera as the base which is served with one or more traditional stew(s).

These stews are spicy and savoury and will likely include some kind of meat, usually beef or lamb. Pork is hardly ever used as it is considered restricted by Ethiopian Christians and Muslims alike. These stews will usually also include vegetables as well. Lentils are a very common ingredient in Ethiopian cooking and are often added to these stews.

Finally, no Ethiopian meal would be complete without a coffee ceremony! 

Coffee time in Addis Abba
Coffee time!

The Best Ethiopian dishes

Wat

Wat is one of the most standard and essential Ethiopian dishes. It is a traditional stew with a strong red onion base. Oil and Berbere spice is added to the softened onions to make the stew base. From there, you can choose a multitude of different ingredients. Next, vegetables such as peas, potatoes, and carrots are added. If it’s not a vegetarian wat, beef, chicken, goat, or fish is often thrown in as well.

Selection of vegetarian wats
Selection of vegetarian wats

For this reason, wat varies greatly across Ethiopia but always has the same signature base. The final dish is served with injera.

Tibs

One of the highlights of Ethiopian cultural food is tibs. In essence, tibs is a giant sautée of meat, vegetables, and spiced butter. Like wat, it can be prepared in a wide variety of styles ranging from extremely spicy to mild, and from rich and hearty to light. It’s basically the African version of a stir-fry and can be served with injera, bread, or rice.

Tibs served with injera
Tibs served with injera

The Best Vegetarian Dishes

As previously mentioned, vegetarian and vegan dishes are everywhere in Ethiopian food. Here are some of the best Ethiopian dishes to try that are meat-free.

Messer

Messer is the signature Ethiopian lentils dish. The lentils are simmered in a broth of spices and onions and served piping hot.

Lentils and other legumes provide much needed protein in vegetarian dishes serves around Ethiopia during fasting days
Lentils and other legumes provide much needed protein in vegetarian dishes serves around Ethiopia during fasting days

Shiro

Shiro is a variation of wat that is made with beans or chickpeas. It normally contains much more garlic and onions than other Ethiopian dishes and is also served with injera.

Shiro wat
Shiro wat

Fir-Fir

Most often served as a breakfast dish, fir-fir makes use of injera in a unique way. The bread is shredded and combined with butter and spices to make a spoonable dish. When injera is not used, kitcha, another type of unleavened bread, is also used.

Beyaynetu (Combination Platter)

If you’re looking for a little bit of everything, give bayaynetu a try. It’s usually a mix of different curries and vegetable portioned out on a bed of injera. It was by far our favourite dish in Ethiopia!

Vegetarian Beyaynetu (Ethiopian combination platter)
Vegetarian Beyaynetu (Ethiopian combination platter)

Atkilt

This vegetarian wat is full of cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. It has tons of spices and is quite simple, but savoury and delicious.

Traditional Ethiopian food Azifa. Photo by Mesob Restaurant via Flickr
Traditional Ethiopian food Atkilt. Photo by Mesob Restaurant via Flickr CC

Azifa

Azifa is a spicy lentil salad that is served cold. It contains cabbage, lettuce, carrots, and spices, and can be a great option on a hot day.

Gomen

Another typical Ethiopian salad, gomen is made with collard greens. The greens are mixed with butter as well as cardamom and nigella seeds.

Selection of fasting vegetarian dishes including gomen, shiro and others
Selection of fasting vegetarian dishes including gomen, shiro and others

Key Sir Alicha

A final Ethiopian salad that you should try is key sir alicha. It’s a gingery mixture of beets and potatoes and is served hot with injera.

Other Dishes Worth Trying

Kitfo (raw meat)

Eating raw meat, in particular, beef is a trendy thing to do in Ethiopia. Especially at the food markets, you can find these delicacies being sold by master butchers. Try kitfo, a thinly sliced beef dish with spices and butter.

Fried fish

Fried fish is a simple yet classic Ethiopian food. The fish are often fried whole, or chopped and combined with chilis, onions, and garlic.

Fried fish food dish in Ethiopia
Fried fish dish in Ethiopia

Tej

If you’re a fan of wine and want to try something truly unique to Ethiopian cultural food, try tej, an Ethiopian honey wine. To counteract the sweetness of the honey, ground leaves and twigs are added to the wine to make it slightly more bitter. Take care when drinking tej – it is quite a deceptively strong drink!

Ethiopian Cultural food, Tej, a honey wine
Tej, Ethiopian honey wine

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Coffee ceremonies are very traditional and common in Ethiopia. After a particularly large or important meal, honoured guests will gather to watch coffee beans being roasted especially for them creating plumes of fragrant smoke.

The coffee is then ground by hand using traditional tools and put into a large clay pot to be boiled with water. The coffee is then served in small cups called si’ni. Sugar or salt may be added to the coffee, and tea is sometimes served as well. Oftentimes, there are snacks such as popcorn or dried grains to accompany the coffee. 

Our Go Addis Tours guide teaching Max the art of drinking coffee in Addis Ababa
Our Go Addis Tours guide teaching Max the art of drinking coffee in Addis Ababa

Ethiopian food is some of the best in Africa and we would highly recommend trying everything you can during your travels in Ethiopia. Personally, our favourite dishes were shiro, messer, and the glorious vegetarian Beyaynetu platter!

Have you ever tasted Ethiopian food? What are the best Ethiopian dishes in your opinion?

 

4 thoughts on “A First-Timers Guide to Ethiopian Food”

  1. The Ethiopian cuisine is so far my favourite in Africa! Its tasty, spicy and mostly healthy – plus as you mention they have lots of vegetarian options which I like. My favourite dish there is the same as yours, the mixed one called Beyaynetu.

    I like your focus on sustainable travel, something we are trying to incorporate ourselves so will keep following your travels for sure!

  2. It’s fascinating to me how a simple coffee ceremony can become a time honored tradition. It seems otherworldly in a sense that normally we just purchase our coffee on the go these days. It must have been a fascinating experience to watch the whole process of the coffee ceremony. I hope to get to witness it one day! Looking forward to reading more about your travels.

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