The most important tip I can give you on Ethiopia local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Ethiopia, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Ethiopia
Injera is Ethiopia’s national dish. It is a spongy, tangy-tasting sourdough made from the grain teff, which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia. It is baked in the form of giant thin pancakes, then often rolled up and sliced to hand-sized portions. It is eaten with wot (or wat), traditional stews made with spices and meat or legumes. Some popular wats are doro (chicken) wat, yebeg (lamb) wat and asa (fish) wat. The injera sits directly on a large round plate or tray and is covered with wat placed symmetrically around a central item.
The various wats are eaten with other pieces of injera, which are served on a side plate. Injera is eaten with the right hand – rip a large piece of injera from the side plate and use it to pick up one of the various flavors of wat on the main platter. Do not eat with your left hand! In Ethiopia food is a respected gift from God and eating with your left hand is a sign of disrespect. Another popular injera dish is firfir: fried, shredded injera. It can be served with or without meat or with all sorts of veggies.
If you prefer vegetarian foods, try the shiro wat, which is a vegetable stew served with injera. Most times you have to specifically ask for it as it doesn’t come with most of the combinations, as Ethiopians prefer meat. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church mandates a large number of “fast days” during the year – officially more than 180 days annually, including a 56 day fast during the Orthodox Lent. During these periods, the observant are required to eat no meat, only vegetarian food. In large tourist restaurants in Addis and in predominately Muslim areas, you will find the fasting period has no impact on the food available to you.
But in smaller restaurants, including in tourist venues like Lalibela and Axum, a tourist will be handed an English language menu full of chicken and meat options – but when attempting to order those items, will be told they are not available, and given the option of “fasting food.” The result will be a very tasty injera plate with 3-6 vegetable and legume wats, including lentils, spinach/greens and similar items. While this can be frustrating to carnivores, and the be served the same “fasting food” for days on end can become tiresome, it makes Ethiopia much more vegetarian friendly. When a vegetarian is having trouble communicating their dietary needs, a good strategy is to ask for “fasting food,” a concept that is nearly universally understood.
Another popular dish is tibbs or tibs, spicy beef fried in butter. It can be either really bad (burnt to a crisp and resembling petrified wood) or juicy and delicious in more fancy restaurants. (The Holiday Hotel in Addis serves delicious tibbs). Kitfo is minced meat, spiced with chili. You can have it raw (the locally preferred way, but there’s a risk of getting tape worm), leb-leb (lightly cooked) or fully cooked.
It comes with a local cheese ayeb and a spinach. For the pickier traveler, almost every place in Ethiopia also serves spaghetti (thanks to the short lived Italian occupation). In nice restaurants in Addis you can find excellent spaghetti and lasagna (try the Blue Tops or Top View restaurants), and in the more peripheral places you will usually find it overcooked with bland tomato paste as sauce. (Ethiopians – especially in smaller towns – will often turn the bowl of spaghetti on top of a plate of injera and wats, and use injera to scoop up both the spaghetti and the spicy stews.)
What to Drink in Ethiopia
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18. The coffee ceremony involves drinking a minimum of three cups of coffee and eating popcorn. It is a special honor, or mark of respect to be invited into somebody’s home for the coffee ceremony. In preparation for the ceremony the coffee beans are roasted in a flat pan over charcoal. The beans are then ground using pestle and mortar.
The coffee is brewed with water in a clay coffee pot and is considered ready when it starts to boil. Coffee in Ethiopia is served black with sugar. Tej is a honey wine, similar to mead, that is frequently drunk in bars, in particular, in a tejbeit (tej bar). A variety of Ethiopian beers are available, all of which are quite drinkable; also Ethiopian wines, both red and white, which would not win any prizes but are drinkable.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.