Ethiopian Food 101

It occurs to me, more than six months after arriving at post, that I haven’t really talked about the food here. This is perhaps because I had eaten it a few times before coming here so it wasn’t particularly new to me. However, I have now recalled that, back in the mists of time when I went to an Ethiopian restaurant for the first time, I was astonished to hear that there even WAS such a thing as an Ethiopian restaurant, having only heard about food in Ethiopia in the context of the lack thereof during the 1980’s famine. But in fact Ethiopia has unique, rich, and varied food traditions, so here’s a quick primer.

The most essential part of any Ethiopian meal is injera, a large spongy pancake made from fermented teff, a local grain. It’s lining the platter and rolled up on the sides there in the picture above. Injera is the main carbohydrate, the plate, and the utensils all at once: you eat all the other things on the platter by tearing off a little piece of injera (with your right hand) and using it to scoop up a mouthful of whatever you want. Usually your entire party eats off one platter, and if you’re still hungry when all the little dishes are gone you can tear up the injera on the bottom and eat that too. If you don’t like injera – and some people don’t, it can be kind of tangy – you don’t like Ethiopian food.

And what are all those things on the plate? A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Here are a few key terms to know on a menu:

Tibs: little pieces of fried meat, usually cooked with onions and/or peppers. May be served with or without sauce.
Wot: a spicy meat stew (not mouth-on-fire, but definitely flavorful) made with berbere, a local spice mix.
Kitfo: Kind of a steak tartare of finely minced raw beef in spices and warm butter.
Gored Gored: cubes of raw beef (a delicacy)
Beyaynetu: a combination plate of vegetarian dishes. There are an endless number of these, including collard greens, beets, green beans, cabbage, and a variety of stews and pastes made from beans, lentils, and chickpeas.

Come to think of it, one thing that did surprise me on arrival was the variety and availability of vegetarian options, since the Ethiopian restaurants I had eaten in elsewhere had mostly focused on the meat. It makes a lot of sense though, for two reasons. First, meat is expensive here, and not something most families can afford to eat every day. Second, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church sets an extraordinary number of fasting days, which entail eating just once a day and abstaining from all animal products. This includes 55 days for Lent, 45 days before Christmas, every single Wednesday and Friday, and some others that escape me. That’s a lot of meatlessness, so of course the veggie options would be varied and tasty. I have a vegan friend here who loves eating out in Addis; at any restaurant she can just say one magic word – “fasting” – and there will be something meat, egg, and dairy-free for her enjoyment.

So know you know something new (hopefully) about Ethiopian food and are ready to taste it for yourself, It can be a little tricky to find, but if you live in Washington DC you have absolutely no excuse not to give it a try.