Ethiopia is one of the largest countries in Africa, spanning a diverse range of landscapes, climates, and peoples, from the ancient Judaic culture of the mountainous highlands to the animist communities that populate the lush South Omo Valley. The country has withstood a long, tumultuous history. Centuries upon centuries of trade, migrations, and conquests emanating from the rest of Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean have resulted in a plethora of cultural and culinary influences. And yet, despite this, Ethiopian cuisine remains truly distinctive. Spices from abroad have converged with indigenous ingredients to create an eclectic mix of flavors not to be found anywhere else. Many of the dishes are unique to the country and together surely comprise one of the world’s best, if commonly overlooked, cuisines.
First-time visitors to Ethiopia are almost always pleasantly surprised by the food on offer. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa are not usually associated with noteworthy cuisine in most people’s minds. Yet in contrast to the starchy and often quite bland fare prevalent in other African countries, the food in Ethiopia is deliciously spicy, diverse and always a source of great fun and interest, particularly for the uninitiated.
The national dish of Ethiopia is injera, a runny dough-like substance made of the tef grain, which is shaped and cooked into a pancake and served with spicy vegetable and meat stews known as wat. From this basic set-up stems a wide variety of dishes, but first let’s explore the national staple itself, and its many health-touting aspects.
Injera is the staple of the Ethiopian diet. Encountered at almost every meal, it is used as a substitute for cutlery and, often, for plates as well. It may not look like much, but the spongy flatbread is being touted as the latest superfood on the scene and is thought to be one of the healthiest sources of carbohydrates in the world. Injera is made of the highly nutritious and gluten-free tef grain, which is unique to Ethiopia. Tef contains a high proportion of fiber — more than any other grain on Earth — as well as being a complete protein and a great source of iron and calcium. These health properties are attributed to tef’s comparatively large husk, which is where most of the fiber and nutritional content of any grain is stored.
Experts have found that the Ethiopian’s high fiber injera-based diet makes their digestive systems particularly efficient and also explains the very low rates of colon cancer in the country. Perhaps we could learn something from this, about the importance of incorporating more of our own traditional whole grains, such as oats, barley and rye, rather than relying excessively on refined wheat. Injera also has the benefit of being very filling. As a complex carbohydrate, it releases its sugars slowly, so you’re unlikely to get hungry before the next mealtime.
Tef is also the only grain containing naturally occurring yeast. Once it has been harvested, the grain is simply mixed with water and left to ferment for three days prior to cooking. This results in a slightly sour taste that is an excellent complement to the spiciness of accompanying wat dishes.
Wat is essentially a stew made up of one of two sauces combined with a mix of vegetables or meat. The most prevalent is kai wat, which is dark red in color and very spicy as it is flavored with the famous berbere. Along with injera, berbere forms the bedrock of Ethiopian cuisine. It consists of hot chili peppers along with an assortment of at least 16 different spices and herbs, including coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, garlic and ginger. The blander yellow-colored alicha wat suits those with milder palates and is often served to foreigners by default. Small heaps of spicy wat stew are piled onto stacks of injera — the dollops of vivid reds, yellows, oranges, and greens almost resembling an artist’s paint palette.
The most commonly found wat dishes are filled with meat, namely lamb in the highlands, goat in the drier regions, as well as beef, which is usually limited to the larger towns. The Islamic, Christian and Jewish influences mean that there is no pork or shellfish in Ethiopian food. Doro wat is a highly popular dish of rich maroon-colored chicken stew consisting of a drumstick or wing served with spicy sauce. The process of making doro wat is fairly time consuming — involving slow cooking berbere, red onions, chicken pieces and hard boiled eggs over several hours. This means it is often quite hard to find in restaurants and usually reserved for special occasions.
Meat makes up an important part of the diet of most Ethiopians. But the country also boasts some of the best-tasting vegetarian and vegan dishes in the world, courtesy of the prolific use of spices. These are served in restaurants on Wednesdays and Fridays, which are the fasting days of Orthodox Christians. Vegetarian wats consist of puréed beans, lentils or split peas, combined with potatoes, carrots or cabbage, along with various spices, which are cooked down into pastes of varying consistencies.
An excellent dish for vegetarians or vegans to sample is the popular atkilt bayinetu, a mixed plate consisting of injera and small heaps of various vegetable wats, interspersed with beetroot salad, spinach or kale and vegetable stock. This platter can be found throughout Ethiopia during times of fasting. Indeed, during the fasting weeks of Lent in March and April, Orthodox Christians eat only vegetarian and dairy-free dishes. Many local restaurants in the Christian parts of the country stop serving meat dishes entirely and extra emphasis is placed on creating tasty vegetable wats, so many vegetarian travelers find this a good time to visit.
Despite earlier health scares surrounding cholesterol, eggs are now being touted as one of the most nutritionally dense foods available to us, and they are the go-to dish for many Ethiopians in the mornings. Scrambled eggs, known as inkolala tibs, served with sliced onions, tomatoes and green peppers are a mainstay of the Ethiopian diet. Egg-based meals can be found on any menu, and they are also a popular alternative to injera at lunch or dinner.
Another egg dish, called fetira, is equally delicious but a little harder to find. Likely emanating from the Middle East, it consists of a flaky puff pastry combined with an egg, shaped into an omelet and served with a little honey. The egg is often placed on top of the dough and cooked very lightly which preserves the nutritional content of the yolk. If eggs don’t strike your fancy, another popular option for breakfast is injera firfir, which is essentially torn up pieces of injera soaked in kai wat and served with yet more injera!
Another ubiquitous and healthy aspect of Ethiopian cuisine is the beverage spris (pronounced ‘spreece’), which is served in cafés and restaurants throughout the country. This is a lusciously thick, visually striking fruit purée made with layers of avocado, mango, papaya, plus lime, and packed full of vitalizing vitamins. Avocado, a fruit which many mistake for a vegetable, forms the base of spris and imparts a rich, creamy taste, as well as providing a dose of essential fatty acids. The avocado content means the drink is very filling and a good substitute for dessert or even an entire meal. On top of the avocado, thinner layers of puréed mango and papaya are added. This is sometimes complemented with a drizzle of vinto, a dark-colored sweet sauce, along with the all-important lime wedges to provide a burst of freshness. Spris is appealing on multiple levels: it is colorful, packed with flavor and nutrients, and extremely refreshing, especially if you happen to be traveling during the hot season or through the arid lowlands.
Experts reckon that it’s not only what we’re eating that matters for our wellbeing but also how we eat. Those countries with some of the healthiest populations in the world, such as Japan or those bordering the Mediterranean, tend to emphasize eating as a social occasion and as a sacred time for relaxation or celebration to be enjoyed with loved ones.
Ethiopians too, by virtue of their national dish, have a distinctly communal-style of eating. Injera and wat are laid out on large platters and groups huddle around to share from the same dish. Ethiopians eat with their hands, tearing off chucks of injera to pick up dollops of spicy stew. It is also customary for Ethiopians to feed each other in this way (presumably so companions can sample wat dishes that are out of reach on the other side of the platter). This traditional way of eating predates the founding of Ethiopia itself and remains an important way to demonstrate camaraderie in the country to this day.