If you’ve never dined at an Ethiopian restaurant before, your taste buds are going to thank you. The flavorsome cuisine is a good choice if you like your food hot and spicy. Dishes are also served to share, making it an ideal night out for a family or group of friends.
You’ll eat Ethiopian food with your right hand — never the left, which is considered unclean — and scoop mouthfuls of food into your mouth using pieces of injera, Ethiopia’s signature flatbread. If your mouth is already watering, then make sure you try these eight Ethiopian dishes the next time you eat out.
The staple of Ethiopian cuisine is injera. This spongy, fermented flatbread is made using teff flour, which is high in protein and gluten-free. The only other ingredients in an authentic injera are water and a clear, yellow liquid that accumulates on the surface of fermenting teff flour batter called ersho, which acts like yeast. After a couple days, the mixture is poured onto a griddle known as a mitad, which is traditionally a clay disc.
Once cooked, injera is smooth on one side and porous on the other, which means it’s effective at soaking up the stews and sauces with which it’s served. Diners will share injera, ripping off a large piece that can then be torn into smaller pieces to eat throughout the meal. When you first try injera, you’ll immediately notice its sour taste, and the fermented flavor profile is the perfect accompaniment to a spicy stew.
Wat is a tasty Ethiopian stew that comes in many forms but typically contains some kind of meat, usually chicken (doro wat) or beef (key or sega wat). The meat is combined with vegetables and niter kibbeh, a type of clarified butter. Much of the flavor of wat, however, comes from the addition of a hot spice mixture known as berbere. The recipe for berbere varies from region to region and family to family, but what’s common across Ethiopia is that it’s a blend of numerous spices — perhaps a dozen or more.
These often often include chili peppers, coriander, cumin, ginger, and garlic, as well as those which are likely to be less familiar, such as besobela (Ethiopian basil), korarima (Ethiopian cardamom), ajwain, nigella, fenugreek, and rue. Dried and ground to a fine powder, berbere ensures wat packs a powerful punch and gives the dish its characteristic red color.
Tibs is another stellar meat dish that relies on berbere to give it heat and depth of flavor. Generally speaking, it’s a stir fry, which most commonly features cubes of beef sautéed with niter kibbeh and plenty of vegetables, such as onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Lamb, mutton, chicken, or goat can be substituted for beef.
Tibs has been eaten in Ethiopia for centuries. These days, you’ll find it everywhere, though in the past it would have been reserved for special occasions. At a modern Ethiopian restaurant, you might also find a vegetarian version on the menu, which uses the same cooking technique but ditches the meat in exchange for eggs (inkolala tibs) or mushrooms (inguday tibs).
If you’re a fan of steak tartare, then this dish is for you. Kitfo is finely-chopped beef, mixed with spices, such as cardamom, cumin, black peppercorns, chili pepper, allspice, and garlic. The leanest cuts of meat are used, but it’s the addition of mitmita, another fiery blend of spices, which gives the dish its taste. To give the beef an even more complex flavor, chefs mix in niter kibbeh, but other than that, there’s no cooking involved.
However, if you don’t want to eat the raw form of kitfo, there’s a lightly cooked version. Ask for kitfo leb leb. Ethiopian restaurants often serve it with a type of cheese called ayibe. Its mild flavor and crumbly texture — a bit like feta — makes it the ideal accompaniment to balance the heat of the spiced beef.
Vegetarians are well-catered for in Ethiopian cuisine, and if you abstain from meat in your diet, beyainatu (sometimes spelled “beyaynatu”) is likely to become one of your go-to favorites. The base of this dish is injera with vegetables piled on top, an addition that gives the dish its name, which means “a little bit of everything” in Amharic.
What you’ll get if you order the dish is similar to a veggie platter. In addition to small heaps of cabbage, potatoes, carrots, or yellow peas, you might find a dollop of shiro, for instance, which is a red lentil-and-chickpea purée jazzed up with berbere, garlic, and onions. It’s also likely that you’ll be presented with some tasty collard greens, known as ye’abesha gomen (often shortened to “gomen”). The thick leaves of the leafy vegetable are lightly braised or fried with garlic, ginger, chili pepper, cumin, cardamom, paprika, and, of course, niter kibbeh.
In some parts of Ethiopia, such as the northern province of Tigray, you might find a dish that’s similar to Swiss fondue. Ti’hilo, however, swaps out the crusty bread or cubes of meat found in the Alps for balls of dough made from barley flour kneaded with water.
In its most elaborate form, ti-hilo is made fresh at the table, though it’s typically served encircling a pot. In the pot is a spicy stew that gets its heat from berbere. Simply skewer a dough ball on the carved stick provided and dip until it’s well-coated and dripping with sauce. Keep the dough dipped until it’s fully cooked and then enjoy.
Ethiopians typically don’t indulge in dessert. Some say it’s because the sweetness of a dessert would take away the enjoyment that comes from the lingering taste of spices in your mouth after your meal.
Nevertheless, Ethiopians do enjoy a pasti. This deep-fried sweet is a cousin of the doughnut, though it doesn’t have a hole; it is, however, sprinkled with powdered sugar. The pasti was introduced by Italians in the country in the early 20th century and today, you’ll find the treat at special cafés called “pasti bets” that are dedicated to perfecting the delicious pastry.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee. Today, the country is the world’s fifth-largest coffee producer, so round off your meal with a cup and the chance to experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The coffee beans are roasted in a pan over charcoal and then ground with a pestle and mortar. A special pot known as a jebena, made of black clay with a rounded base and a straw lid, is filled with boiling water.
The server adds the finely-ground coffee, and once it’s brewed, it’s poured into cups from a height of about a foot. You won’t be offered milk, but since the coffee is strong, you might welcome a spoonful or two of sugar. The grounds are brewed three times — abol, tona, and baraka — and the coffee gets weaker with each pour.