A Beginner’s Guide to Ethiopian cuisine
Ethiopian cuisine is a joy to discover for many reasons. Firstly, there is a wealth of vegetarian and vegan options, plus the main filler of every meal is traditionally gluten-free, making it suitable for various dietary needs. Secondly, Ethiopian food is meant to be shared, with dishes served on one large platter and handfuls fed between guests in a sociable act known as gursha. Once you understand some of the basics, you’ll be ready to fall in love with Ethiopian cuisine. Here are some of the key terms you’ll need to know when starting on your exploration of the cuisine.
Injera is the staple of meals and you’ll need to know what to do with it; many first-timers make the mistake of treating it like a plate or tablecloth, instead of an integral part of the dish that it is. Injera is a large circular pancake made from teff. The source of starch is served with a range of stews, curries or vegetables on top, and you tear it with your right hand and use to eat the rest of the meal. You might find it sour tasting at first, but you should persevere as it will be served with most, if not every, Ethiopian meal.
This dish is usually served at breakfast time and is made up of shredded leftover injera, mixed with either leftover wat or signature spicy berbere sauce. It’s the traditional Ethiopian way to start the day. Even though the main ingredient in fir-fir is injera, it’ll probably be served with more injera on the side.
There are a lot of different options of what – Ethiopian stew or curry – to try. There are many vegetarian and vegan-friendly dishes like mesir wat, made with red lentils, and kik wat, with split peas. Shiro wat (chickpeas), otherwise known as shiro, is one of the most consumed wats across the country and features on almost every vegetarian platter. Meat eaters should try the classic doro wat (chicken), bere wat (beef) or beg wat (sheep) for a taste of the common flavors eaten in Ethiopia.
This is a popular dish for meat-eaters and is usually eaten as a celebration or commemoration of holidays and special events. Freshly sliced beef or lamb is fried in butter, garlic, and other seasonings. Tibs is usually plated with chili dipping sauces and rolls of injera or served as part of a larger meal with other vegetables and wats.
Newcomers to Ethiopian food may be surprised to find this dish uses raw minced beef, in a spicy version of a Western steak tartare. The beef is marinated in a clarified butter called niter kibbeh and spices. It is served raw but warm alongside vegetables and soft cheese.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of good coffee and, as such, it makes up a large part of the culture, especially if you attend a coffee ceremony. Here, the coffee will be made in a jebena, a traditional clay pot, and is often served at three different strength levels. You can mix the coffee with sugar/ salt and usually, the ceremony includes snacks such as popcorn as well as coffee sampling.
Tej is a very popular Ethiopian drink – some consider it the national drink – and many households brew their honey wine. It is best consumed after dinner, although be warned that the sweet taste can mask the high alcohol content. The best Tej can be found in the north of the country, where the highest quality of honey is sourced.