Somehow I never really was exposed to Ethiopian and Eritrean food before coming to Switzerland. I am not sure how common Ethiopian restaurants are around the world, but it was somehow not on my radar. Which is very unfortunate since I have been missing out. Turns out Ethiopian food is delicious and great for vegans! I have discussed several Ethiopian restaurants on my blog and I actually go back to those quite often. So, if you still haven’t tried: you are missing out.
Once again, I want to iterate that with this article I will just provide a basic overview. The culture and cuisine of Ethiopia and Eritrea is, like all cultures, very extensive. Please check the sources below for more information. Especially the second link is full of information (it is a blog companion to a book)
Ethiopia and Eritrea
Notice in the title I mention Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia, it separated after a long fight for independence. The cuisines are quite similar, except in Eritrea, which has a coast, more seafood is consumed. Also, since this part was colonised by Italy longer, there are some specific pasta dishes found in Eritrea. I noticed several Ethiopian restaurants call themselves “Ethiopian and Eritrean” so I am sure they don’t mind I bunch them together here.
Ethiopia is a pretty special country with a history longer than most. Literally. Since some of the oldest modern human skeletons have been found in Ethiopia. It is also the region from where the first modern humans travelled to the Middle-East and beyond. And, little known fact maybe, but it was one of the first countries that adopted Christianity as a state religion. Christians still make up the greater part of the population, followed by Islam. While initially the Ethiopian Orthodox church was part of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, it separated in 1959.
Which is a nice segue to get onto the food, because that is what we are here to talk about! Orthodox Christianity prescribes several fasting days and periods, called tsom in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, during which animal products are excluded from the menu (similar as Pist of Post in Ukraine). This means that Ethiopian cuisine has several specifically vegan dishes, which are commonly eaten during these fasting periods.
Most Ethiopian dishes are in the form of thick, spicy stews, called wat or wot. These stews are served on top of injera, a large, thin, circular pancake made of fermented teff flour. Teff is a type of grass, and one of the earliest cultivated plants. The injera has a very specific taste due to the fermentation, and an almost spongy texture. It serves as a plate, and also as utensils; pieces are torn of to scoop up the stews (with the right hand!). In most Ethiopian restaurants you don’t get utensils (unless you ask nicely:)) and I have to say learning to efficiently eat one-handedly was a bit of a struggle, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly.
During non-fasting days, different types of meat are used (apart from pork and shell-fish for religious reasons). Some dairy products are used, specifically clarified butter, niter kibbeh, for cooking (this is substituted by different types of oils during the fasting periods). Legumes such as lentils, chick peas, and split peas are used in stews as well. Common vegetables are potatoes, onions, garlic, chard, carrots, tomatoes. For spices, the ‘berbere’ spice mix, which contains chilli peppers is very common. Some less spicy stews rely more heavy on turmeric.
Desserts are not really part of the Ethiopian food culture. The desserts that are exist are mostly imported from other cultures, like from the Italian and Arabic cuisines. The Ethiopian restaurants I have been too mostly serve Western-style desserts, or baklava. Of course Ethiopian-style sweets and pastries do exist, they are just not commonly eaten as desserts.
Of course you can find a lot of global brands of drinks, like soft drinks, beer and wine in Ethiopia. But there are also some specific traditional drinks. However, in restaurants outside of Ethiopia, those drinks might be less common.
Let’s start with one of the most important beverages in Ethiopia: Coffee. Traditionally it is made in a clay pot (jebena), and the beans are roasted on the spot. There is a whole coffee ceremony surrounding the drinking of coffee, which can take hours. Coffee is consumed with salt or sugar, and in some regions niter kibbeh is added to it.
For alcoholic beverages, there is tej (honey wine), tella (beer made from barley) and areki, a strong liquor made of grain. In general beer is the most popular alcoholic drink, and in many Ethiopian restaurants several kinds of Ethiopian beer are served in addition to the local drinks. Kenetto is a drink similar to tella, but without alcohol.
Vegan dishes in Ethiopian restaurants
My exposure to Ethiopian food has purely been in restaurants outside of Ethiopia, so similar as for article on Indian food, there might be a Western cultural influence at play I am not aware of. What I have seen and eaten does line up with most of what I have read about the food, and most of the places I went to were also frequented by people from Ethiopia, so my guess is that it is relatively accurate. I do think the spiciness might be tuned down a bit 🙂
In all Ethiopian restaurants I have visited there is a clear distinction between the meat and vegetarian/vegan dishes on the menu card. In general the vegetarian dishes are okay for vegans to, just make sure there is no butter used. I found in most restaurants it is common to get several stews at once, which is similar to how the food is served in Ethiopia.
The stews are served on a (couple of) injera, and often accompanied by a salad made of greens, onions and tomatoes. Also, commonly the food is served in a sort of ‘sharing style’, where there is one main platter for several people. This platter is often presented in a mesob, a woven wicker basket. Traditionally these come on a foot, and all diners will sit around it to eat. Smaller versions that can fit on a dinner table exist as well.
Sambusa/samosa: dough triangles filled with lentils (vegan version). Served as a starter
Injera: the sour-dough pancake made of teff
Shiro wat : mild chick pea stew, made from powdered chick peas. When I first had it I thought it was made from peanuts! It is very soft and creamy. (Careful, it occasionally contains niter kebbeh!)
Misir wat: red lentil stew with berbere spices
Kik alecha: yellow split peas, the alecha is a milder type of stew made with turmeric
Gomen wat: Collard greens stew. I have mostly seen this dish made with spinach.
There are many more variations on these stews but these are the ones I have seen the most! Wow, writing this post made me crave some Ethiopian food! I am going to have to plan my next stop at an Ethiopian restaurant…I recently discovered some new ones 😀
* This is a whole series of posts, all very interesting!