The food in Ethiopia is just as unique as the country. From spicy Wat to refreshing Talla, here are some of the best tastes you can find under the African sun
Billed as one of the few African countries never colonised, Ethiopian cuisine is primarily shaped by socio-cultural and religious factors within the country. Meat is common, thanks to an abundance of livestock, but vegetarianism is also a hugely popular diet choice due to the fasting rituals practised by those of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Regardless of your dietary choice, Ethiopian cuisine is exotic and highly flavourful. Here are some of the best dishes to get a taste of this vibrant culture.
While not technically a meal in itself, many of the country’s dishes are based around the nutritious sourdough flatbread known as injera. Made from teff flour, it is gluten-free and vegan-friendly, making it a cornerstone for much of Ethiopian cuisine.
To make injera, you mix the teff flour with water and let it ferment for three days. You then cook the mixture on a clay plate known as a mitad. You can also make do with a non-stick pan or a griddle. The bread itself has a texture that is similar to crumpets, and to those who love or eat Indian cuisine, dosa would be a closely related dish to injera.
Injera is served with a dish called wat – a stew that can be made from vegetables, doro (chicken), asa (fish), kai (beef), shiro (chickpeas) or messer (lentils). The spiciness of the sauces varies according to the amount of berbere – the seasoning blend of spices. As the national dish of Ethiopia, you will be able to find variations of this everywhere, but doro wat, in particular, is very popular.
Along with wat, you’ll often find tibs (pan-fried goat or beef) served with injera. To prepare it, you’ll need to cut meat into small chunks and pan-fry them with oil, butter, onions, garlic and spices. It’s quick and easy to make, but as far as comfort food goes, it’s immensely satisfying.
While injera is a daily experience for most Ethiopians, kitfo is generally saved for a special occasion or served during national public holidays. Kitfo is Ethiopian beef tartare made from top quality raw beef mixed hot chilli powder. The lean meat is hand-chopped to give it a melt-in-your-mouth texture, and the finished product is often eaten with kocho, a chewy bread made from False Banana.
Ethiopians know how to make great craft beers, and thanks to local and international demand, many great breweries have sprung up across the country. Popular brands include Bedele, Dashen, Habesha, Hakin, St Goerge and Walia. If you’re in Addis Ababa, check out the Beer Garden Inn (a short distance from Edna Mall), a brewery that to this day still conforms to the German Purity law.
Ethiopia’s national drink, Tej, is fermented wine made with honey, water and gesho leaves (used as hops). Visit a tej bet (an establishment that serves tej), and you can order dry or medium-dry tej served in berele, a glass vessel with a narrow neck that looks like a beaker. There is no label to tell you the strength of tej, but it is widely said that they are around 12% to 15% alcohol by volume.
Many people are surprised to find out that the highlands in Ethiopia are highly suitable for grape cultivation and are dotted with wineries producing quality red and white wines. Awash is the country’s first modern winery which is now partly owned by singer and activist Bob Geldof through his private equity firm. Rift Valley is another increasingly well-known name.
Talla (or Tella)
Traditionally home-brewed sour beer made from barley, wheat or millet. Visit a talla bet (an establishment that serves talla) and enjoy a refreshing cup or two.
How to enjoy Ethiopian food & drink
Ethiopians only eat with their right hands and so should you. Many restaurants across Ethiopia provide you with a small bowl of water or a moist disposal towel to clean your hands before you eat. If you must eat with cutlery, don’t worry – with tourists flocking to Ethiopia nowadays, many restaurants catering to tourists also provide a knife and fork.
To enjoy your meal, you place a piece of injera on your plate and put some stew on top of it, then you roll it up and tear it off with your right hand.
When it comes to drinks, diners also order Ambo (sparkling water), local beer and soft drinks, with wine popular in high-end restaurants. Remember that while Ethiopian cuisine naturally caters for most diets, their food is based on several staples that appear throughout nearly all of their dishes, injera being an excellent example of this.
A cup of tea or coffee can round out your meal in a comfortable fashion.
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This article was updated in September 2020.