Ethiopian Food (An Overview of Ethiopian Cuisine)
by Daniel Noll
When we headed to Ethiopia recently, I went packing with high expectations of the food. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Ethiopian food fresh out of university. In Washington, D.C., just new to world cuisine, I clearly recall my first pull of a round stretchy pancake-like injera bread, beautifully colored mounds of what looked to me like curries, and a massive circular tin plate from which we all grabbed and chowed down. The flavors and communal style of eating was cool and unusual, like nothing I had experienced before. I wanted to learn more.
After praising the food in Ethiopia upon our recent return – yes, it’s as good on the home turf as it is abroad — I was surprised by how little awareness seemed to exist not only of Ethiopian dishes but also of the distinct existence of the cuisine itself, even among some friends I consider well-traveled and food aware.
This isn’t terribly surprising. After all, how often do you hear someone raving about and posting photos of cuisine from sub-Saharan Africa?
Ethiopia is the exception. With its rich, spicy stews and diversity of flavors, Ethiopian food surely qualifies as one the world’s great stand-alone cuisines.
Considering the country’s history and geography, particularly in situ, it makes sense. The cuisine follows the culture, formed and informed by millennia of trade and exchange with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. Amidst this storm of positive culinary influence, acquired spices blend with Ethiopia’s indigenous ingredients.
And, poof! You get Ethiopian food, a unique table befitting the context.
Here’s what we discovered about Ethiopian food during our time in country: from the basic ingredients and spices that make the cuisine so unique to some of our favorite Ethiopian dishes.
Let’s dig in!
Ethiopian Food: The Fundamentals and Basics
Ethiopian food without injera might be considered heresy by Ethiopians. This spongy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented teff (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia) is fundamental to every Ethiopian meal.
injera features a slightly sour flavor that comes from the fermentation of its primary ingredient, a grain called tef. Although we enjoy eating injera, for some it may be an unusual, if not acquired, taste. The tangy flavor, however, seems well-designed to complement the flavors found in Ethiopian stews.
After eating injera across Ethiopia, we also learned that not all injera is created equal. Typically, the lighter the color the higher the quality of the teff grain therein, meaning a smoother, subtler tang. Some injera is deliberately dark, almost to the point of brownish purple.
Injera with a simple berbere sauce offered as a sign of welcome to a village near Lalibela.
In traditional Ethiopian meals you’ll often find circles of injera rolled out like a natural plate, atop which are arranged a smattering of spicy stews, cooked vegetables and salads. Although the presentation may appear similar to that of an Indian thali, the flavors and style is uniquely Ethiopian. Restaurants will usually bring out baskets full of additional napkin-rolled injera rounds. One thing is almost certain in Ethiopia – you’ll never ever have to worry about running out of injera during a meal!
Injera, the edible base of a typical Ethiopian mixed vegetarian plate. No fork and knife needed.
Injera is meant to be eaten with your hands. Tear off a small bit with your right hand (as in many countries, eating with one’s left hand is a no-no in Ethiopia) and scoop bits of the stews and various dishes into it, forming a bite sized food parcel and gingerly tuck it into your mouth. Don’t feel embarrassed if you get some of the stew or sauce on your fingers in the process – it’s natural and is part of the fun. Tempted though you may be to lick your fingers, know that Ethiopians don’t care for that practice, either.
Injera tip to beat all injera tips: the best bits of injera are the spice- and sauce-infused patches underneath the piles of stew on the tray!
It’s unlikely you’ll ever emerge hungry from a meal with lots of injera, as it fills the stomach for hours. After a big lunch in Ethiopia, it’s rare that we ate a full dinner later in the day, if we ate at all.
The signature red spice mound that delivers magic to most Ethiopian stews, berbere is composed of ground semi-spicy chili peppers (which themselves are called berbere to further confuse) mixed with upwards of 20 individual herbs, spices and ingredients including garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fenugreek.
Crucial to the Ethiopian kitchen: berbere on the left, chickpea flour for shiro on the right.
Mitmita is another core spice blend composed of chili peppers (smaller and hotter than berbere), cardamom seed, cloves and salt. While mitmita is often turned in meat dishes to add an extra kick during the cooking process, it’s also used as a condiment to lend some additional heat to the meal on one’s plate.