Food (and Drink) in Ethiopia

I don’t know if I’ve said this before here, but I have definitely heard this saying though, and now that I’ve been to both Kenya and Tanzania, I can confirm it’s more or less true… that Ethiopia is in Africa, but not necessarily of Africa (at least the stereotype of “Africa” that many people have in their heads).  Everything about the place is unique… and usually the opposite of what one might think.  Most of the country is lush, mountainous highlands, it’s the only county in Africa to never have been colonized, the dancing is mainly in the shoulders (if you don’t think this sounds unique you’ve got see it in person), the music is crazy and off-beat, it contains one of the oldest versions of Christianity still in existence and the people look very different compared to what one would think of as an “African”.  So it makes sense that the food would be unique as well… and it definitely is.  Here is a picture of a standard Ethiopian meal:

IMG_0528Generally, there are no utensils (they brought me a fork because they assume ferengis don’t know how to eat the food)… that’s because one eats using that bread like substance lining the bottom of the plate (it’s called injera, and has a consistency of something like a thin, spongy pancake… although the taste is almost bitter).  You peel off a piece of injera, use it to grab a pile of food and then send the whole thing down the hatch.  So, in effect, you’re eating the plate/utensils as well (every single Ethiopian restaurant, no matter who remote the place/town, has a hand washing station for both before and after… even if it’s just a bucket with a spigot… and hand washing is always part of the meal, to the point at many of the nicer places they will bring over a pitcher of hot water, soap and a basin and pour the water over your hands for you) .  The main part of the meals (i.e. the thing one grabs with the injera) generally consists of a meat stew of some sort (usually beef or goat… sometimes chicken, but note that chicken in Ethiopia is much more expensive than both beef and goat… and sometimes fish when near water), but on fasting days (i.e. Wednesday and Friday, meatless days as mandated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) it generally consists of bean stew of similar consistency.  For me, as a big meat eater, the food was great… you can generally order variations on the meat stew theme with more or less sauce, depending on how you like it.  And all that injera makes everything pretty filling.  Of course, nothing is perfect… my main complaint being the lack of variety… as what I’ve described above is pretty much it, and there is little variation in the menus from region to region… no vegetables (except on fasting days), no fruit, no salads, no sandwiches (unless you’re eating in a “western” place)… basically no nothing but meat stews, meat and injera (I did grow to not be too fond of injera… I’d ask for rice if I could get it, or eat as little of it as possible… it was just too heavy).

There are a also couple of variations in Ethiopian cuisine that I found interesting.  The first and most prominent of which is that Ethiopians love to eat raw beef.  Yes… I used the word raw to describe beef… and noted that one would eat such a thing (at least while in Ethiopia).  Not only that, it’s actually quite common.  And yes I ate raw meat… several times… and no lying, it’s actually delicious.  There are two types… one is called kitfo, and is ground meat mixed with spices… similar to steak tartar.  I only had kitfo once, and that was at the wedding I ended up at.  And it was good… but something about the idea of eating ground beef never really sat well with me.  The other type is called gored gored,  and is basically just cubes of raw steak… here’s a picture:

IMG_1136It’s hard to explain, but I’m going to use a sushi analogy… such that good, fresh meat doesn’t really taste, or smell, meaty… similar to how good sushi doesn’t really taste, or smell, fishy.  An honestly, if you eat raw fish, it’s really not that large of a leap to eating raw beef (okay… that’s a lie, it’s harder than that, as it took me a while to work up to it).  Good raw meat was generally very soft and easy to chew (minus a large gristle pieces,which were cut off with the knives shown in the picture above).  It’s generally served with two sauces (depending on the region), the red one(s) (shown above) was a slightly spicy BBQ-like sauce, and there’s a light green one similar to a light wasabi (with the sinus-clearing kick… the spiciest thing I had in Ethiopia).  Now, if raw meat isn’t your thing, you could order the meat at various levels of cooked (from partially cooked to fully cooked… each level of cooking has a different name that one has to learn in amharic), which is generally what I did.  In fact, my most common dinner when I lived in Addis was a half-kilogram of tibs (you order by the kilo and tibs is the cooked version of the raw beef cubes shown above) and a jumbo draft beer (not bad too shabby of a meal for $4.75).  Here’s a shot of the front of my usual dinner place (the hanging beef carcasses are the easy way to identify the good meat restaurants):

The meat cutting guy at my favorite restaurant near where I was staying in Addis.

The meat cutting guy at my favorite restaurant near where I was staying in Addis.

The other variation of Ethiopian food I really enjoyed was their juices… I don’t know how they made these things, but it was like they ground up about ten of any different kind of fruit one could order and distilled it down to a cool, slush like consistency… similar to, but somehow more pulpy than, a jamba juice without any of the crap or mixtures they have (i.e. if you ordered a mango juice, my personal favorite, it had nothing but mangoes in it… no mixing in yogurt, unless you wanted it, or pineapple juice, or boosts, or anything like that… just straight mangoes and mango juice).  The flavors available were generally mango, papaya, guava, hibiscus, strawberry or avocado (with availability dependent on the season… so all of these were generally listed on the menu with only about two of them being actually available).  And yes, you heard that right avocado juice… and it tasted pretty much exactly you think it would… imagine and avocado with a bit of sugar added to make it sweeter than a normal avocado… all with the consistency of a smoothie.  I know, it sounds a bit weird, but believe me, it was pretty good.  The other thing people would do is order juices spritz, which is half of one and half of another… not mixed, just layered on top of each other (you could order any liquids spritz… and most people did it with juice, or with coffee and tea, which was not the best combination in my opinion).  Since the food rarely had fruits or vegetables, the juice was a great way to get some needed vitamins.

Speaking of liquid refreshment (I think you knew this segue was coming)… Ethiopia has it’s fair share of locally brewed alcohol.  There’s, of course, the standard beers that or more or less the same as anything in the US… Giorgis (St. George’s), Harrar, Hakim Stout, Castel, Bedele and Dashen  For me, these were just okay… and I found them all to tend to be a touch on the sweet side for beers… must be some reflection on general Ethiopian taste/palate.  But delving beyond those, Ethiopia’s alcohol starts to get a bit more interesting.  First, there’s the locally brewed honey wine known as Tej (sounds like “tedge”):

IMG_0531This stuff is really sweet (tastes like there’s a lot of honey in there)… but it is powerful enough to knock you on your ass after a couple of drinks (people told me it’s actually some where in that 30% / 60 Proof alcohol range).  I was never sure if there’s any large tej breweries supplying all the restaurants that serve it (tej was available at most middle to upscale places), or if it was all brewed locally in small batches… and note that many Ethiopians can, and do, make their own supply locally:

Drinking home brewed tej at a Karo tribe village...

Drinking home brewed tej at a Karo tribe village…

They really could throw these things back... and the tej here was actually the best I had in all of Ethiopia.

They really could throw these things back… and the tej here was actually the best I had in all of Ethiopia.

Another drink that was exclusively brewed locally is tella, or homemade beer.  Tella was, literally, everywhere… it seemed every tiny village had at least a couple of tella brewers there, which were easily identifiable by their signs… the signs being a instant coffee can impaled on a stick outside a house:

IMG_0512Tella varied greatly from region to region because, being homemade, the brewers used whatever grain was available locally… so the final product ranged from blacker than used motor oil to about as white as homemade paste.  The consistency was also pretty varied, although always pretty thick… from very gritty and sandy with the consistency of a very thick milkshake to about the same as molasses.  From my experience, the darker version of tella were pretty good, tasting similar to a Newcastle Brown Ale… but the lighter (and invariably grittier) versions were pretty tough to drink, especially if they were served warm (or it was a very hot day).

Looks delicious right?

Looks delicious right?

The final locally brewed alcohol I tried was called araki (spelling?, sounds like “arah-kay”), which is homemade distilled liquor (better known as moonshine in the US).  I don’t know what this stuff was made of, but it was firewater, although not bad tasting firewater… but it definitely burned going down.  I was served it in several places outside of Addis Ababa, and the locals were generally pleased when a ferengi (foreigner) would ask for it.

Other observations… Ethiopians love to think their food is spicy.  When given the choice, I’d always ask for spicy, and they’d invariably question my dedication, to which I’d reaffirm that I do, indeed, want it spicy.  When my dish would arrive, the waiter would generally point out that it’s spicy (or people at the table would do it), and warn me about it.  Now the level of spiciness that one enjoys varies on an individual basis, and I like spicy food, but not burn your mouth and cry for 15 minutes spicy… so I’m here to let you know that if you enjoy spicy food, Ethiopian food is not spicy… the so-called spicy stuff is mild at best (and I’m sure that someone reading this could make Ethiopian food water my eyes spicy as a challenge, but in general, it’s definitely not spicy).  Ethiopians also have a tradition of feeding each other, which, as an American, is a little disconcerting at first, because who feeds strangers by hand?  Well, Ethiopians do… and refusing is a huge insult… so just do it (this happened to me several times, most prominently at the cafe/lunch stop on my bus ride from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar… I was seated with two younger guys, and they not only fed me by hand, to which I returned the favor, they also paid for the meal).  One other thing is that when orders food in Ethiopia in a group (i.e. more than one person), the plates do not all come out at the same time… they generally come out in shifts, so everybody shares everybody elses meal… so when the first plate comes out, everybody just digs in regardless of who ordered it (so if you wanted something in particular and don’t really like what everybody else ordered… tough shit).

Now, for your homework assignment… go look up an Ethiopian restaurant in your neighborhood and give it a whirl… I doubt you will be disappointed (maybe after eating it everyday for 2 and a half months… but that’s different, I was sick and tired of Spanish food after being there for so long as well).  And remember to wash your hands.

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5 thoughts on “Food (and Drink) in Ethiopia

  1. That’s a lot of meat! I was thinking I might lose some weight while in Africa/Ethiopia but after reading the post, changed my mind :D.
    Good tip regarding the feeding tradition by hand ; I will keep that in mind next week in Ethiopia..

    • I think so (from what I’ve heard)… but since I haven’t had mead I can’t say for sure. But the tej was pretty potent stuff… I had three beer bottles full with those dudes in the picture and was pretty dizzy by the time I stood up.

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