For a crash course on Ethiopian food, here are some tips on Ethiopian dining etiquette and a list of the best Ethiopian dishes to try.
Those who have traveled in Africa will know that food comes in limited varieties and options in most of the continent — but not here in Ethiopia.
You’ll be surprised to learn that Ethiopian food – much like other aspects of its culture – is not only some of the most diverse on the continent, but also completely different to anything you’ve tasted. Strong, spicy flavours and rich stews characterise Ethiopian cuisine, giving it a unique flair.
Unlike other parts of Africa where meat is scarce and variety is limited, in Ethiopia you’ll find delicious curries and a diverse selection of foods almost everywhere you go — whether in simple rural villages or high-end restaurants in the big cities. This rich and vibrant culinary culture in Ethiopia can easily rival that of places like Spain or Thailand.
Although Ethiopia was severely hit by famine in the 1970s and 80s, it’s no longer the starving country that many imagine. Ethiopia has become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and its culinary culture is gaining global fame.
Ethiopian Dining Etiquette
The first rule of thumb when eating in Ethiopia is to use your hands! Eating with your hands is a standard practice in Ethiopia, not just in locals’ home but also in simple eateries and restaurants. It may require some getting used to but practice makes perfect. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and just dig in, the way locals do. Oh and only use your right hand to eat!
Another local eating custom includes feeding one another food with their hands, as an act of friendship and love. When eating injera with friends or family, use your right hand to strip off a piece, wrap it around some meat or curry, and then put it into your friend’s mouth. This is called gursha — the larger the gursha, the stronger the friendship or bond.
Best Ethiopian Food to Try
Here’s a list of the most common and popular Ethiopian dishes that you’ll find almost anywhere you go in Ethiopia.
Injera — Pancake-like Flatbread
The country’s main staple is injera, an ubiquitous pancake that’s eaten for every meal in every part of Ethiopia. It’s spread out on a large flat basket and simply topped with mounds of spicy meat stews, colorful vegetable curries and even raw cubes of beef. The injera is akin to bread in Europe or rice in Asia, and found at every meal.
Originally made from tef (indigenous Ethiopian cereal), injera may taste tangy, bitter and even slightly sour for the first-time taster — but give it another few mouthfuls (or dip it in piquant red berbere powder), and it might grow on you. It can be quite easy to get injera-ed out as they are served in generous portions, at every single eatery/restaurant.
The best injeras usually have a pale beige color, but you’ll find them in different shades of brown or grey. The dark ones are of the poorest quality and are often made with tef substitutes such as barley or buckwheat. An injera-making clay pan is an essential item in every household in Ethiopia — you’ll find one even in the most rural village.
Wat — Ethiopian Curry
Injera is often eaten with wat, an Ethiopian version of curry which is very spicy, heavy and flavorful. Doro wat or chicken curry is known as the Ethiopian national dish, and it’s often eaten on religious festivals. Families get together on Christmas (known in Ethiopia as ‘Genna’) and break their 40-day fast by feasting on a massive dish of doro wat, akin to the turkey in the western world.
For daily meals, beg wat (sheep curry) is most commonly eaten, followed by bere wat (beef curry). Kai wat is another version that’s cooked with an overload of berbere powder (a powder made up of 16 spices). The wat is usually heaped onto the injera, then nibbled on by tearing bits of injera, dipping them in the curry sauce and wrapping them up with chunks of meat.
Tibs — Sautéed Meat
This special dish of sautéed meat and vegetables is usually prepared to commemorate special events and holidays. Tibs is served in a variety of manners, and can range from extremely spicy to mild or contain little to no vegetables. There are many variations of the delicacy, depending on type, size or shape of the cuts of meat used. The ones I had remind me of the carne con salsa that my Spanish family makes.
Tibs is meant to be one component of a larger Ethiopian meal, served with braised cabbage, carrots and potatoes, doro wat (chicken curry) and misr wat (red lentils) — all of that are then heaped on top of an injera.
Firfir — Shredded Injera for Breakfast
Typically served for breakfast, this spicy, tangy dish packs a punch and gives you plenty of energy you need for the day. It is generally made with shredded injera, spiced clarified butter (called niter kibbeh in Amharic), and spicy berbere powder. Unlike most Ethiopian foods, firfir is usually eaten with a spoon.
There are two main varieties of fir-fir depending on the type of flat bread being used: the injera and the kit (a thin unleavened bread typically made of wheat). I had fir fir for breakfast on my first morning in Ethiopia and mistook it for tripe because of its texture and color.
Shiro — Chickpea Stew
Shiro is one of my favorite Ethiopian dishes, because of how flavourful and spicy it is. It is a favorite dish during special occasions, including Lent, Ramadan and other fasting seasons.
The delicious, thick stew is made of powdered chickpea, broad bean or lentils, slow-cooked with the popular berbere powder. Most people also add minced onions, garlic and, depending upon regional variation, ground ginger or chopped tomatoes and chili-peppers. Like many other dishes on this list, it’s served atop injera. It is a vegan dish, but there are non-vegan variations including (a spiced, clarified butter) or meat (in which case it is called bozena shiro).
Kitfo — Raw Meat
To be honest, I was really surprised to find a dish like this in the developing world. Kitfo is made of minced raw beef marinated in mitmita (a chili powder-based spice blend) and niter kibbeh (a clarified butter infused with herbs and spices). The name ‘kitfo’ comes from the Ethio-Semitic root k-t-f, meaning “to chop finely”.
Kitfo is often served alongside or mixed with a mild cheese called ayibe or cooked greens. Kitfo is served with injera in most parts of Ethiopia, although the original version is served with kocho, a thick flatbread made from the ensete plant. Though not considered a delicacy, kitfo is generally held in high regard. Traditionally, it’s served just leb leb (warmed not cooked), though you can ask for it to be betam leb leb (literally ‘very warmed’, ie cooked!).
Bayenetu — Vegan and Vegetarian Meal
Ethiopian food is perfect for so many diets is that there’s always a “fasting” (or animal-free) option. Most Ethiopian Orthodox Christians traditionally eat vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as other special days. During this time, fasting food or bayenetu (a collection of meat-free dishes) are available in every restaurant.
Some dishes regularly found on Bayenetus include gomen (collard green with spices), aterkik alitcha (yellow pea stew) and atkilt wat (cabbage, carrots, potatoes in sauce).
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. In the tenth century, Ethiopian nomadic mountain people were the first to recognize coffee’s stimulating effect, although they ate the red cherries directly and did not drink it as a beverage. Today, it continues to be a key national beverage and an important part of the country’s commerce.
You’ll find people doing the traditional coffee ceremony everywhere you go in Ethiopia. The coffee ceremony is the traditional serving of coffee, usually after a big meal. It often involves the use of a jebena, a clay coffee pot in which the coffee is boiled. Coffee is usually served with sugar, but is also served with salt in many parts of Ethiopia. In some parts of the country, niter kibbeh is added instead of sugar or salt.
Snacks, such as popcorn or toasted barley (or kollo), are often served with the coffee. In most homes, a dedicated coffee area is surrounded by fresh grass, with special furniture for the coffee maker. A complete ceremony has three rounds of coffee (Abol, Tona and Bereka) and is accompanied by the burning of frankincense.
Tej — Honey Wine
This popular drink amongst Ethiopians is a mead or honey wine that is usually brewed at home. It is flavored with the powdered leaves and twigs of gesho (Rhamnus prinoides), a hops-like bittering agent. Tej is usually homemade, but you’ll find “tej houses” throughout Ethiopia that serves delicious tej.
The traditional vessel for drinking tej is a rounded vase-shaped container called a berele, which looks like a laboratory flask. Tej has a deceptively sweet taste that masks its high alcohol content, which varies greatly according to the length of fermentation. Berz is a sweeter, less-alcoholic version of tej, and is aged for a shorter time.
Recommended Restaurants in Ethiopia:
Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant — Addis Ababa
This traditional restaurant may seem a bit touristy, but it makes a great introduction to Ethiopian food for first-time visitors. Tucked in a dark alley within the Bole district, Yod Abyssinia is a famous joint that serves a large variety of local cuisine along with an Ethiopian dance show (starts at 7.30pm every night).
The spacious main hall is designed to resemble a typical hut and is full of eye-catching materials, from traditional hand-woven curtains to serving dishes made of woven grass. Prices are much higher than in standard joints but prepare for big portions and a healthy dose of entertainment.
Shembeket — Dessie
As one of the most popular azmari bars in town, this traditional joint is a local’s favorite haunt located on the main road of Dessie. From the outside, it looks like a dilapidated shack; but head in there and you’ll find a rustic, traditional flair and entertaining music and dance that aim to tease and taunt you with amusing sing-song.
Ben Abeba — Lalibela
Bizarrely designed in a Dali-esque style, Ben Abeba may look bold and brash from the outside, but it is truly the most unique place I’ve dined at in Africa. It not offers the best 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains, but also some of the best foods in town. The signature dish is the Ben Abeba special shepherd’s pie, but there are plenty of authentic Ethiopian dishes on the menu too. It’s just a short walk from town but feels like you’re right in the middle of the countryside.
The Four Sisters Restaurant — Gonder
Easily my favourite restaurant in the whole of Ethiopia, The Four Sisters Restaurant is comfortable, welcoming and atmospheric. It served the best Ethiopian foods I had, at very reasonable prices. You can choose from the buffet dinner (172 birr or US$7) that has more variety than you’ll imagine, or attractive mains (60-100 birr or US$2.60-4.40). There’s plenty of seating in the leafy outdoor verandah, lit by LED candle light.