Last Updated on January 10, 2022 by Nellie Huang
For a crash course on traditional Ethiopian food, here are some of the best Ethiopian dishes and where to eat in Ethiopia.
On my recent trip to Ethiopia, I was surprised to find that Ethiopian cuisine – much like other aspects of Ethiopian culture – is one of the most unique and diverse cuisines in the world. (The only country that shares a similar cuisine is neighboring Eritrea.)
In Ethiopia, it is easy to find rich, flavorful curries and a diverse selection of foods almost everywhere you go — whether in simple rural villages or restaurants in the big cities. I feasted on possibly the best curry I’ve ever had in a tiny village in the middle of Ethiopia.
Food in Ethiopia is exciting and different. There is never a dull moment when it comes to Ethiopian food. With strong, spicy flavors and rich stews, Ethiopian traditional food definitely ranks as one of my favorite cuisines in the world.
Table of Contents
- A Guide to Traditional Ethiopian Food
- How to Eat Ethiopian Food
- Best Ethiopian Dishes
- Injera — Pancake-like Flatbread
- Wat — Ethiopian Curry
- Tibs — Sautéed Meat
- Firfir — Shredded Injera for Breakfast
- Shiro — Chickpea Stew
- Kitfo — Raw Meat
- Bayenetu — Vegetarian Combo Meal
- Ethiopian Coffee
- Tej — Honey Wine
- Ethiopian Fruit Juice
- Where to Eat in Ethiopia
- Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant — Addis Ababa
- Shembeket — Dessie
- Ben Abeba — Lalibela
- The Four Sisters Restaurant — Gonder
- Where to Stay in Ethiopia
A Guide to Traditional Ethiopian Food
How to Eat Ethiopian Food
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 diners and restaurants. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and just dig in, the way locals do.
Also, eating Ethiopian food is a social experience: everyone gathers around the table and digs into a communal platter that is shared with each other. Ethiopian cultural food is eaten with friends and family.
Another Ethiopian eating custom includes feeding one another food with their hands, as an act of friendship and love. When eating with friends or family, tear off a strip of injera, 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 Dishes
Here’s a list of the most common and popular traditional Ethiopian food 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 is eaten all over Ethiopia. It is spread out on a large flat basket and simply topped with mounds of spicy meat stews, and colorful vegetable curries. 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. Give it another few mouthfuls (or dip it in piquant red berbere powder), and it might grow on you.
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
Wat is a spicy, heavy and flavorful Ethiopian curry. Doro wat or chicken curry is known as the national dish of Ethiopia, and it is found on every Ethiopian food menu.
Doro wat is also the star of the show during Ethiopian festivals. Families get together on Genna or Timkat 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 one of the best Ethiopian dishes in my opinion. It is cooked with an overload of berbere powder (a powder made up of 16 spices).
To eat the curry, you usually dunk a generous serving of it onto the injera. Then you tear bits of injera, dipping them in the curry sauce and wrapping them up with chunks of meat.
Tibs — Sautéed Meat
This popular Ethiopian dish is a sizzling dish of sautéed meat and vegetables. It is usually served on a hot plate, and fried with some onions and oil. I probably ate this authentic Ethiopian dish the most during my trip in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
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, Firfir is a spicy, tangy dish that 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 dishes, 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 the best Ethiopian dishes for vegetarians and vegans. It is also one of my favorite Ethiopian foods, because of how flavorful and spicy it is. It is also commonly eaten during 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 authentic Ethiopian dishes on this list, it is served with 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
This is definitely one of the most surprising traditional Ethiopian foods.
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 a mild cheese called ayibe or cooked greens. Of course you eat it with injera. Traditionally, it is served just leb leb (warmed not cooked), though you can ask for it to be betam leb leb (literally ‘very warmed’, ie cooked!).
Bayenetu — Vegetarian Combo Meal
Traditional 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 in many places when you travel Ethiopia (and Eritrea). 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.
Snacks, such as popcorn or toasted barley (or kollo), are often served with the coffee. Most traditional homes have a dedicated coffee area, 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 Ethiopian drink 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.
Even though Tej is usually homemade, but you will 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.
Ethiopian Fruit Juice
Everywhere you go in Ethiopia (and Eritrea), you will find rainbow-colored fruit juices served in cafes and street stalls. They are sweet and thick, almost like fruit smoothies.
It is common to find a mixture of avocado, watermelon and mango juices. They are a perfect way to digest all that heavy Ethiopian traditional food you’ve had!
Where to Eat in Ethiopia
Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant — Addis Ababa
This traditional Ethiopian restaurant may seem a bit touristy, but it makes a great introduction to traditional 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 will find a rustic, traditional flair and entertaining music and dance. We even made local friends here and ended up having drinks with them till the wee hours.
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 Ethiopian dishes in Lalibela. 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 favorite restaurant in Ethiopia, The Four Sisters Restaurant is comfortable, welcoming and atmospheric. It served the best Ethiopian food I had, at very reasonable prices. You can choose from the buffet dinner (172 birr or US$7) that has more variety than you will imagine, or attractive mains (60-100 birr or US$2.60-4.40). There is plenty of seating in the leafy outdoor verandah, lit by LED candle light.
Where to Stay in Ethiopia
- Addis Ababa — Hotel Lobelia (US$70/night) was the best place we stayed at in Ethiopia. It’s located just a 5-minute drive from the airport, in the up-and-coming Bole district that’s packed with restaurants and bars. The hotel has comfortable and spacious rooms, and great WiFi and a good breakfast spread. They also provide free airport transfer to the hotel. Check the latest prices here.
- Guassa Conservation Area — Guassa Community Lodge (US$13/person) is a simple, rustic lodge in the middle of the protected area. It feels like the middle of nowhere here and is great for getting disconnected and being deep in nature. You’ll have to bring your own food to cook and don’t expect any heating (it gets extremely cold at night!). Find more info on the conservation area website.
- Dessie — Leul Hotel is located along the main road of Dessie, near several other guesthouses and budget hotels. It’s a simple place that’s very cheap and relatively comfortable. Location is great, WiFi is decent but don’t expect any luxury here.
- Lalibela — Seven Olives Hotel ($40/night) is the oldest hotel in Lalibela and also the most established. While it needs some serious renovation work, it has a leafy garden with panoramic views of town and it’s located right in the centre of town, just a 5-minute walk from the churches.
- Gonder — Queen Taytu Guesthouse ($13/night) is a really cheap hostel just minutes from Gonder’s historical centre. It’s quite basic, but gives a run for your money due to its great location and not-too-scruffy rooms. Book here.
- Bahir Dar/Lake Tana — Papyrus Hotel ($40/night) was the second best place we stayed at. It feels like a fancy beach resort that needs some sprucing up, but otherwise rooms are spacious, beds are really big and luxurious, and there’s even a swimming pool in the centre of the resort.
Have you tried traditional Ethiopian food or are you planning to try some in Ethiopia? What is your favorite in this list of best Ethiopian dishes? Leave me a comment below and let me know!
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