When speaking about Ethiopian food, it is worth remembering Ethiopia is a multicultural country that is comprised of eighty ethnic groups. It is a country where the Oromos (34.5%), Amharas (26.9%), Somalis (6.2%), Tigrayans (6.1%), Sidamas (4%), Gurages (2.5%), and others live together. On the other hand, it is also a country that homes the major religions of the world - christianity, Islam, and to a lesser extent Judaism. The latter belonging to a group of people called Falasha, beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews, many of whom (14,324 of them; Source: Jewish virtual library) were brought to Israel in 1991, through a major operation known as Operation Solomon.
Clearly, politics aside, Ethiopia is a country that beautifully blends together diverse cultural and religious mixes. Therefore, it is very important to recognize and also be sensitive to the fact that there are far more varieties of dishes in Ethiopia than often presented. Some of these dishes, however, have persisted across the ethnic and cultural boundaries, and thus represent the unique Ethiopian national dishes. Here, we will briefly introduce, for those unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, the typical Ethiopian dishes that have made their way to many of the Ethiopian restaurants both within the country and abroad.
- Injera and Wot: Typically, the traditional Ethiopian meal has two essential components: the injera, a thin flat and round bread that is made of flour/grain called teff, and the wot that is closely described as stew. Various types of wot along with injera constitute the traditional Ethiopian cuisine. Ethiopian dishes are generally divided into two parts: vegetarian dishes (yetsom wot) and non-vegetarian meat dishes (yefisik wot). The two dishes, and their nomenclature in Amharic, signify the type of food eaten during the fasting and non-fasting seasons. The majority of Ethiopian Christians follow the Orthodox christianity and observe an extended religious fasting periods, during which Orthodox christians avoid meat dishes and dairy products for religious purposes. The diet during these times are strictly vegetarian dishes (yetsom wot). The vegetarian dishes come in a variety of flavors such as split peas, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, lentils, collard greens, green beans and more. On the other hand, the non-vegetarian meat dishes are commonly comprised of beef, lamb and chicken dishes; also fish and goat dishes, but no pork dishes.
Eating with hands: Ethiopians eat their traditional food with hands, no fork and knife. This often comes as a surprise to the western culture, but it is worth pointing out that it is also common in many Asian cultures, e.g., Indians eat most of their dishes with their hands. We admit it is different, but people often eat Kentucky Fried Chicken with their hands It is important to point out though various dishes in Ethiopia, for example ethnic dishes like genfo or non-traditional dishes like spaghetti are often eaten using utensils. Having said that, the traditional Ethiopian dish injera and wot is strictly eaten with hands! No getting around that It requires a bit of skill to eat by hand. If you are first timer to the Ethiopian dishes, follow these rules
- Before your meal is served, try to observe how the locals skillfully wrap the wot with injera and drop it into their mouth; pay special attention to how they avoid messing up their hands or mouths
- When your food is served, unless you are left-handed, use your right hand for eating. Traditionally, Ethiopians eat with their right hands.
- Ethiopians cherish eating together from the same platter. If you are sharing food with others, try to eat only on your side. It is considered rude to eat from the side of a person sharing a plate with you, unless you run out of food on your side. However, if you ordered a variety of dishes (beyeaynetu) on a platter, it is understood that you will have to jump across to grab your favorite pieces.
Well, this is just to give you a piece of the culture. Truthfully, nobody cares much about how one eats. People are rather appreciative of the fact that you shared and loved their food and culture. Mechanistically speaking though, if you are first timer for Ethiopian cuisine, here is what you need to do: tear off a piece of injera, place it on top of the wot and then scoop carefully the wot with injera. Hold the food delicately, and from there you know where to send it
Description of the Ethiopian foods: We thought it may be helpful to talk a bit about what goes in common Ethiopian dishes. Although the recipes for Ethiopian cuisine varies from dish to dish, there are common ingredients that are often used in most Ethiopian dishes. Ethiopian’s use onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and other spices in most of their cooking, making their food spicy and delicious. One of the most important ingredient in all of the hot, spicy Ethiopian dishes is berbere, a chili pepper, prepared with various seasonings often imported from Ethiopia. The non-vegetarian meat dishes also contain spiced butter that gives the food a great flavor. With this short introduction, below we briefly list the most common traditional Ethiopian dishes:
- Doro wot: This is a chicken dish cooked with common ingredients of onions, garlic, ginger and seasoned butter. A spice called berbere is also added into the stew. Once the onions, garlic and ginger are cooked together for a while along with the berbere, the chickens are then added and blended into the mix by letting them all simmer together with seasoned butter. When the dish is almost done, boiled eggs are added and cooked briefly to absorb the flavor. The dish is then served with injera for eating.
- Doro fitfit – You may come across a menu with such an item. This is nothing, but a derivative of the Doro wot where the injera is blended together with the Doro wot and heated up briefly for mixing, giving the dish such a wonderful flavor.
Except in the unfortunate households that do not afford it, it is a tradition in all Ethiopian christian households to celebrate Easter by cooking Doro wot to feast with families and friends.
- Yebeg wot: This is a lamb dish. As in the Doro wot, it is also cooked with the same common ingredients of onions, garlics, gingers, and other spices, although the Doro wot would require more onion when cooked traditionally. Berebre/chili peppers and seasoned butter are also added. Once these are cooked down, then chunks of lamb meat and some water will be added and cooked together. Often, yebeg wot may also come with the meat on the bone cooked together in the stew.
- yebeg alicha – You may also have yebeg alicha that is cooked using turmeric powder instead of chili peppers. If you wish to avoid hot dishes, you may select alicha to any of the food categories when available. Both dishes are served with injera.
- yebeg tibs – this is tendered diced lamb cooked with a blend of Ethiopian herbs, spices, green chilies and onions.
- Siga Wot (key wot): This is spicy beef dish in juicy berber wot. Once again this dish is cooked with onions, garlics, gingers, tomatoes, and other spices. Once the mix is sautéed along with berbere, browned beef cubes are then added along with some water, which is then cooked to be stew. Right before serving, spiced butter and other spices will be added and cooked.
- Beef dish also comes in different flavors other than the key wot.
- siga tibs, zilzil tibs, derek tibs: - these are fried beefs with pepper and onions, mildly spiced. Each of these are slightly different. siga tibs, or simply tibs, is often associated with juicy fried chunks of beef, whereas derek tibs is literally dry tibs. zilzil tibs refers to stripe of tender tibs sauteed with onion, pepper and other seasonings.
- Kitfo: This is a raw finely chopped lean beef and prepared with spices, seasoned butter and mitmita powder (seasoned chili pepper, hotter than berbere). Kitfo can also be sautéed lightly for those who do not like raw meat. Kitfo is also served with cottage cheese, finely chopped cooked spinach and injera.
“It is originally a delicacy of the Ethiopia’s Gurage people, but long ago it spread to the wider culture, and now it is a popular meal among Ethiopians. …The Gurage will sometimes eat their kitfo with qocho, a fermented bread-like injera substitute made from enset, or “false banana,” one of the Gurage’s most important plant foods.” Harry Kloman, 2010, Mesob Across America.
- Tere siga: Most Ethiopians love to eat raw meat (tere siga). Tere siga, also referred as kurt, is accompanied by mitmita, berbere or awaze, all of which are made from chili pepper, but with different seasonings. Eating kurt is rather ceremonious! You hold a chunk of meat between your fingers, cut a piece with a knife, and if there is an awaze around, dip the piece into the awaze, …. Well, what can we tell you after that, except perhaps a sip of your favorite drink along with it Are you thinking …Wine? or, …? Never mind, you haven’t heard it from us anyways, although traditionally friends get together for kurt and drink Of course, eating raw meat may cause serious health issues, so we do not recommend someone who is not familiar with the culture.
Speaking of raw meat, again the Ethiopian culture often comes as a surprise to the western culture. Although we know Ethiopians pride themselves in their unique culture, for the sake of argument it is worth pointing out that sushi has been in fashion in the West for some time, and raw fish is the most popular ingredient in sushi. On the other hand, finely minced raw beef called steak tartare is another raw meat dish that is regarded as gourmet in many European countries. So, when it comes to raw meat eating, we would like to argue saying it should not come as a surprise considering other cultures. Perhaps, the Ethiopian restaurants need to give it a French name in their menu … Of course, they shouldn’t, we will be the first to boycott the restaurant!
- Vegetarian dishes: Ethiopian vegetarian dishes come in many flavors, including shiro wot (chickpeas), misir wot (split lentil), kik wot (red lentil), kik alicha (yellow split peas), gomen (collard green), tikil gomen (cabbage), yeatakilt wot (potatoes, carrots, and cabbage mixed), and more. These different dishes are cooked differently, but as mentioned above for the meat dishes, almost all the vegetarian dishes are also cooked with sliced onions, garlic, ginger and other spices. However, unlike the meat dishes, most of the vegetarian dishes are cooked with oil instead of seasoned butter. While some dishes do add chili peppers, others use turmeric powder. They are all served with Injera.
Watch the video below to learn how one of the vegetarian dishes (a cabbage dish) is cooked.
We know that these brief descriptions are far from being sufficient for satisfying the curiosity of many visitors of the page. On the other hand, some might want to venture into cooking Ethiopian foods. For these reasons, we would like to recommend a list of excellent books that can be purchased from amazon or found in local bookstores. Click here for the link to the list.
Although it may not be thorough, if you are looking for a quick recipe to experiment with, you may use the widget below for searching. To use the widget, enter the dish (e.g., Doro Wot, Kitfo, Shero, etc) you are looking for in the search box, and click the link when it shows up.