Contrary to the cheap jokes that some people make about food in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa provides a wide range of cuisine and incredible traditional dishes that cannot be found in the states.
The food serves as a vital component of people’s lives and traditions here, as the dishes contain many ingredients exclusive to Ethiopian soil. Addis Ababa hosts a large variety of options, even offering their own imitation of In-n-Out Chicken Burger, which was extremely confusing to this California native. If you are in the mood for a new and delicious culinary adventure definitely visit an Ethiopian joint, or better yet, come to Ethiopia.
The food is typically served with injera that blankets the dish and is made of iron-rich teff, an ancient grain that can only be grown in Ethiopia, where nearly 80% of the population are farmers. Injera can vary in colors and sourness, depending on how long you allow it to ferment after cooking it atop a heating iron plate. It has a spongy texture and firmness like a yoga mat, is full of protein and is gluten free!
Also, don’t make the mistake of asking for utensils, as injera fulfills the role of fork, knife, plate, and sometimes napkins. You simply tear off some and use it to scoop up different parts of the dish. You can only use your right hand to scoop, and it is very common to feed your friends and family by stuffing their mouths full of injera, with shiro, tibs, or wot.
Shiro is a stew made out of chickpeas, spices, various vegetables or meats. They serve it in an iron cast pot with a green chili pepper poking out of the rich orange bubbling stew that you ladle atop the injera. After a while the shiro saturates the underlying spongy injera and creates a savory ending to your dish. Usually the shiro is placed in the middle of a beyanetu, an Ethiopian fasting dish. Much of the country is Ethiopian Christian Orthodox and fasts nearly 250 days of the year. This fasting means no meats, milk, or eggs and occurs every Wednesday and Friday along with annual Orthodox holidays.
A fasting beyanetu boasts multiple options for injera scooping and is perfect for the indecisive eater. Your hand full of injera can choose from marinated green beans, seasoned collard greens and chopped tomatoes with green peppers, among other selections. If you are feeling especially cutting edge you can even combine the options together with shiro to create a jam-packed injera bundle that truly maximizes your options.
When Ethiopians are not fasting they are steadfast carnivores and incorporate meat into many of their dishes. Meat-seekers can order tibs, chopped up and sautéed beef or chikna (goat) that, surprise, are also eaten with injera! For the adventurous ferenji (foreigner) and average Ethiopian, kitfo and gored gored are frequent options. Kitfo is raw marinated beef ground with spices to create a kind of pâté consistency while gored gored is simply raw beef that you cut up into cubes and dip in a homemade sauce just before popping it in your mouth.
Often times the animal your meat comes from is in clear view, as mini butcheries frequently appear on Addis sidewalks next to fresh fruit stands and bakeries. I especially enjoy a nice doro wot, one of most popular dishes in Ethiopia. Wot is a red pepper stew seasoned with onions, garlic, ginger, paprika, and several spices to create a deliciously spicy paste that flavors the tender wot (chicken) and fresh hard boiled eggs.
You may become quite thirsty while eating all of these spices, and luckily Ethiopia offers many beverages to wash down the heat. While their mixed cocktails may be underwhelming, there are a variety of acceptable beers. The most popular brew is St. George, the government owned brand brilliantly labeled with a picture of St. George riding a bucking horse while slaying a dragon contrasted against a bright yellow background. Some competitors include Harar beer, Dashen and Meta. Also, if you order an “Obama” in Harar, they will come back with a bottle of their tasty local stout.
Local bars also offer tej, a sweet homemade honey wine with a rich golden color served in a beautifully curved berele glass that requires a specific grip. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee (buna in Amharic) and many places host traditional ceremonies that display the various intricate steps and clay pots necessary to brew the perfect cup of world famous Ethiopian coffee. Traditional food can be intimidating to a new palette, but you will soon find yourself addicted to the flavorful and complex dishes that Ethiopia offers. For anyone taking a first try at Ethiopian cuisine, I recommend a beyanetu with shiro and a St. George, and potentially some gored gored if you have a stomach made of steel.