Veganism in: Ethiopian & Eritrean Cuisine

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.

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Sambusas at Awash (Geneva)

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.

Food

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.

Injera at a table in Zara2001
Injera with salad and shiro wat – notice the holes in the injera – great for soaking up the stew juices!

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.

Drinks

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.

 

Zara2001 Interior
Mesob at a table at Zara2001 (Geneva)

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.

Food at Awash
Salad, gomen wat, shiro wat, kik alecha and misir wat served on several injera

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 😀

 

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_cuisine

https://ethiopianfood.wordpress.com/ *

* This is a whole series of posts, all very interesting!

https://www.africanbites.com/ethiopian-collard-greens/

http://www.thegourmetgourmand.com/ethiopian-shiro-wat/

https://asoulfulappetite.com/african-cuisine/misir-and-shiro-wat-ethiopian-101/

https://allaboutethio.com/tfoodndrinks.html

 

 

Nyala Barka (Geneva, Switzerland)

Can you tell I am loving Ethiopian food? The third of its category on this blog! Small spoiler: for lunch this might be my favourite Ethiopian place…let’s get going!

The name of the restaurant is derived from a type of antelope, the mountain nyala, which lives in the mountains of Ethiopia. The nyala is important in Ethiopian culture, being for example on the 10-ct coin. Unfortunately, the existence of these animals is threatened (due to e.g. illegal hunting and habitat destruction), but efforts have been put in place to halt this.

Drinks at Nyala Barka

I visited Nyala Barka for lunch, together with my favourite partner-in-crime. The restaurant is large, with African elements in the decoration. At the end of the room there is a bar. There’s a lot of carton boxes which gives a bit of a messy appearance.

 

We had a starter of sambousas, a dough triangle stuffed with vegetables and lentils. They had to be eaten by hand, which was a bit of a challenge since they were hot! Maybe we had to be more patient. They tasted good though, the dough was nice and crunchy.

Sambousas at Nyala Barka
Vegetable stuffed sambousas

The vegan menu consists of several different dishes; two with lentils, a potato dish, one with spinach and one with chick peas. For the tasting menu you get three of these, depending on the day. There are less injera served with it compared to Awash and Zara 2001 but for lunch I found it okay. We got the spinach, potato and one lentil dish.

Injera at Nyala Barka
Injera with lentils, potato and spinach stews, and salad

There were three desserts available, of which at least one, the fruit salad, might be vegan. I didn’t want to have a dessert, so I didn’t ask about it.

 

Nyala Barka might well be my new favourite Ethiopian restaurant in Geneva, when looking at price, quality, atmosphere and location. I will definitively go back!

Type of place: Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant
Completely vegan: no
Vegan desserts: ??

Website (French) : http://www.nyalabarka.ch/

Sources:

Zara 2001 (Geneva, Switzerland)

The first time I had Ethiopian food was in Geneva, one of the first posts on this blog (Awash) and I really enjoyed it. Zara2001 is another Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant in Geneva. The interior is very nice, with African art on the wall. Some of the tables were relatively low, and there is not a lot of space. Also it was a bit chilly.

Zara2001 Interior
Table at Zara2001

The food is predominantly Ethiopian, though there are a few Indian dishes on the menu as well.  There is a clear section on the menu which is vegetarian (meaning vegan in this case) which lists four dishes. Three of those dishes can be served in a combination plate, which we had, because choosing is hard.

Injera at a table in Zara2001
Injera with salad and sauce served on the large plate

The dishes that were included in the combination plate are a spinach stew with spices and peppers, tumtumo: lentils with garlic and spices, and alecha: potatoes with carrots, green beans and cabbage. The latter is a bit more spicy. Unlike at Awash the dishes are not served directly on the injera, but came in separate bowls. The injera comes with salad and some spicy sauce. We also got a second plate with more injera.

Alecha, spinach and tumtumo at Zara2001
Alecha, spinach and tumtumo (sorry for the blurry photo…I am a bad food blogger…)

The service was a bit slow, even though the restaurant was empty. We did come at a strange time though, between lunch and dinner. The food was good and the price reasonable. I still need to practise eating with injera, so I think I’ll explore some more Ethiopian restaurants!

 

Type of place: Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant
Completely vegan: no
Vegan desserts: no desserts at all

Website (French) : https://www.facebook.com/pages/Caf%C3%A9-Zara-2001/164600906888464