With Ethiopian food on the rise throughout the world, with restaurants opening steadily from Cape Town to Mumbai. Ethiopian food is served communally on a platter and the whole emphasis is designed for sharing food with friends and family. In Ethiopian culturefood is never meant to be eaten alone, and it’s a large part of the Ethiopian culture and experience.
Injera is the staple of Ethiopian food. It is a starchy filler in all of Ethiopian cuisine. It’s eaten twice or even three times a day. Injera is essentially an edible dish: Whenever you order Ethiopian food, Injera automatically comes with it. You literally eat all the other food off of it by tearing the Injera and using it to wrap and pick at the main dishes on the top. Injera is made up from a grain called teff, which is ground into flour, and made into batter, slightly fermented, and then fried on a heavy skillet into a giant circular pancake. The texture is soft and spongy and the flavour slightly sour. It compliments virtually all of the vegetable and spicy meat dishes in Ethiopia. No utensils are used in Ethiopian cooking: All you require are your hands and the Injera.
Kitfo really is a special dish in Ethiopia, reserved for special occasions, such as birthdays, weddings etc. Only the leanest meat is good enough for Kitfo, which is the minced and warmed up in a pan with a stick or two of butter and mixed with Berbere, which is the king of spice blends found in Ethiopian cooking. Just be warned: Kitfo is ‘warmed’ and definitely not ‘cooked’: Think of steak tartar and you are on the right track. Of course, you can always ask for the dish to be warmed up by saying “betam leb leb” (“very warmed” i.e cooked), but this is not generally the traditional way Ethiopians would eat it. But it may be much more palatable for western stomachs. Other side dishes it is commonly served with are “Gomen” – which is minced spinach, and“Enset”, which is essentially Banana bread.
As mentioned above, Bebere is the undisputed king of spices in Ethiopian cooking. Like masala in Indian cooking, it is the backbone to the flavours of numerous dishes. Berbere is essentially chilli powder, fenugreek, ginger, garlic, cardamon, cinnamon, and loads of other indigenous spices. In terms of its alluring fragrance and taste, think of it as somewhere between Indian curry (garam masala) and Southwestern Cayenne chilli powder.
Essentially, ‘wat’ is a stew, or perhaps it could be better explained as a curried stew. It can pack some serious spice, and is synonymous with Injera, which helps somewhat to temper the heat. In the highlands, bege (lamb) is the most common ingredient, while in large urban areas it is beef, and figel (goat), is mostly eaten in the lowland areas. Chicken is generally reserved for special occasions and is considered the king of wats. Interestingly, Christians and Muslims avoid pork, and on fasting days, such as Lent, meat dishes are avoided and so various vegetarian wats are offered up instead. Kai Wat is meat boiled in spicy red sauce (consisting of large amounts of Bebere spice), and is also used in the dish named Minchet Abesh, which is a minced-meat stew topped with hard boiled eggs, with cottage cheese.
Often just called “Shiro”, this is separate from other Wat dishes – so separate it deserves it own category: For a start, it is a purely vegetarian dish, and most commonly made from chickpeas and broad bean flour, mixed with garlic and onions, and made into a paste like substance. The overall result is something akin to Mexican refried beans, but smoother. Vegans can also rejoice as it usually comes with olive oil instead of butter. It’s a really popular dish throughout Ethiopia, but especially in the capital Addis Ababa, where it seems to be infused with much more garlic than other versions.
Another ‘wat’ based dish that is unique and again one for vegetarians. It is quite simply, a red lentil stew (think of Dal Bhat in Indian cuisine). The lentils are slow cooked with berbere powder to give the classic red look, and they are cooked until tender, yet they still have some texture to them. Indeed, every version of this dish is slightly different wherever you go in Ethiopia, or even from day to day in the same restaurant. This is part of the attraction of the dish. The differences depend on the amount of spices used, how long it was cooked for: Just the slightest variation of any of these factors can make the dish substantially different: Sometimes the texture comes out smoother, sometimes the lentils have a little more of a satisfying ‘bite’ to them, but rest assured, this dish is always a winner.
Really, the best way to describe this dish would be Ethiopia’s answer to the world famous, tex-mex dish, “fajitas’. It is made by marinading beef sautéed with vegetables, but you can find a whole plethora of other version across Ethiopia, including lamb, and even goat in the south. Although this dish is traditionally meat heavy and really only served on Ethiopian public holidays and festivities, you can still find it on most Ethiopian menus in Houston, Texas! A real testament to a fusion of two very different culture’s cuisines that works incredibly well.
Now for something for breakfast: Fit-Fit is scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions. Not exactly exotic by any means. However it’s the “Foul” part of the dish that gives it the distinctive Ethiopian character. “Foul” has its roots in Middle Eastern trade routes (the old “silk road”), and shares its name with a similar dish from the Levant: It’s a dish that calls to mind refried beans, served with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and scrambled eggs – this is really the typical Ethiopian breakfast, and yet the ingredients are easy to find in most supermarkets in the western world, and so you could easily make this delicious breakfast yourself every morning in the comfort of your own home.
This literately is Ethiopian salad. But it often turns out to be one of people’s favourite Ethiopian dishes after visiting a restaurant or the country itself. Timatim – or tomato salad -is always a big hit. Ethiopian tomatoes are always fresh and crisp and so much more flavourful than what is on offer in western supermarkets (which have often been genetically modified or coated in pesticides). They are first diced with onion and chillies, and then seasoned liberally with salt, lemon juice, and drizzled in olive oil. Of course, this is paired up with the staple – Injera – like many other dishes, and is often served alongside curry type dishes – the combination resulting in a beautiful balance of flavours that compliment each other wonderfully (the lemony flavours in the salad with spicy curry in particular is a combination that goes down particularly well).
Another typical Ethiopian breakfast dish – but one that can equally do well for lunch – this is a made from kita bread. The kita bread is basically a flaky oily fried bread, shredded into bite size pieces, then fried up with some butter and just a tiny dash of berbere for some added flavour. It is often found in Ethiopia served with a side dish of fresh, organic honey, and a bowl of plain yogurt. It’s a wonderful contrast of oily spicy doughy bread with sweet honey and yogurt.