Despite Ethiopia’s diverse population, the more than 80 different ethnic groups unite in their love for the national dish injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread made of teff flour served with meat and vegetarian stews.
On my first trip to Ethiopia, I learned early on that eating is a social and cultural occasion where families and friends get together. A typical meal can consist of a plate filled with thick lentil sauce, beef mince marinated in the red hot spice-mix mitmita, sautéed carrots, ayib cottage cheese and berebere-flavoured doro wot chicken. It’s all served on top of injera and shared among everyone, adding to a cosy communal vibe.
Thanks to Orthodox Ethiopian fasting, there is a wide variety of excellent vegan dishes — being a vegetarian in Ethiopia really isn’t difficult.
If you’re looking for a dose of Ethiopian culture through your belly’s lens, Yod Abyssinia is a popular restaurant in Addis Ababa where tourists, local families and Ethiopians in the diaspora go for traditional food and for live entertainment.
In addition to the great food, the traditional dances from the different ethnic groups of Ethiopia, including the shoulder dance eskesta.
To learn more about Ethiopia’s distinct cuisine, I embarked on a food tour with Addiseats — a tour founded by an American couple wanting to showcase the traditional cuisine of Ethiopia through the eyes and stomachs of the locals.
Not only did I eat and drink my way through three restaurants, a coffee shop, and a fresh juice bar; I also got priceless insights into the local culture and culinary customs.
The experience that stood out the most during the food tour, was the visit to Yilma Restaurant, a famous meat restaurant owned by a great cattle breeding family. Before the branch opened in the capital, people would drive to Nazaret, located 50 km outside of Addis, just to eat there.
Since I’m not a big red meat eater, I was a bit wary of the traditional raw meat dish tere sega. After having my first bite of that tender and succulent meat, however, I was convinced that it was some of the best meat I have ever eaten. For seconds, I had a delicious plate of medium-rare sautéed tibs beef, dipped in mitmita and the mustard seed sauce senafich.
Not all are traditional on Addis culinary scene. Ethiopia is one of the few African countries not to be colonized by a European power and this has helped preserve the country’s traditional food culture.
However, when the Italians occupied Ethiopia in 1935, new flavours and dishes were added to the Ethiopian cuisine. Pasta and pizzas became as common as Ethiopian food in many restaurants.
Beyond its delicious fare, Ethiopia is known for its coffee. According to legend, a goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee after noticing that whenever his goats ate beans from a certain tree, they became so spirited that they didn’t want to sleep at night.
The story’s authenticity is debatable but as soon as you set foot in Ethiopia, you’ll realize that coffee culture is stronger here than anywhere else on the planet.
Coffee ceremonies do not, as the name suggests, only occur during special occasions. It’s rather a daily activity that sometimes happens several times a day. Some days I’d attend two or more, eating away at the popcorn and toasted barley that traditionally comes with the coffee. During coffee ceremonies, raw, green beans are roasted over hot coals and grounded before brewed in a clay boiling pot called a jebena.
Coffee is poured from a jebena, commonly served with a branch of tenadam — the fragrant rue herb.
Another Italian influence in the Ethiopian coffee culture is the roasting process. In places such as To.mo.ca (featured image at the top), a family-owned roasting company established in 1953, you’ll get an outstanding espresso or macchiato.
To.mo.ca’s masterful baristas serve an incredibly rich brew on their vintage Italian espresso machines. If you’re there try the sprice, a macchiato with tea instead of milk — yes, coffee mixed with tea!
For a country that has been widely associated with famine and drought, Ethiopia may not be the first place that comes to mind as a gastronomic utopia.
For me, however, after two weeks of eating amazingly varied vegan food, fresh raw meats and berbere-licious chicken, while tracking the origins of coffee culture, Ethiopia was exactly that. Do not miss this undiscovered foodie gem.
Photo Credit: Simon Klose