If I had to pick one great thing about Ethiopia (and there are many, many great things to choose from), I’d have to say the food. Now granted, I’ll eat pretty much anything after living off ramen and toast the past few years in college (I can see mom’s face now), but I think even the pickiest of eaters would have to agree that Ethiopian food is pretty darn good (there are even a few restaurants in Boston and New York, for the folks back home!).
Ethiopian food’s basically centered around one staple, and that’s injera, a spongy sourdough-tasting flatbread. Ethiopians eat injera with wat, a generic name for a variety of stew-like sauces, with meat, vegetables, spaghetti, and even eat injera with injera for breakfast (plain injera is used to scoop up injera that’s been mixed with spicy berbere sauce — gives a kick to your morning!). Dishes are traditionally served family style: wat is poured on top of a few layers of injera and then scooped up with pieces of untouched injera ripped off the edges of the tray.
Wat comes in many, many forms, but the most popular are chiro, a orange-colored sauce made primarily from powdered chickpeas and onions (think soupy hummus), messir, a red lentil-based stew, and minchit, minced beef in a spicy, oily sauce. A popular thing is to order beyeaynit, a sampler of different veggies, types of wat, and rice.
Traditionally there aren’t any desserts in Ethiopian cuisine, but thanks to globalization and a brief period of Italian rule there are an abundance of quite tasty pastry shops around Addis to satisfy my sweet tooth. There’s even a famous baklava spot in Piazza, a bustling area known for its silver shops (and Italian architecture, if you hadn’t picked up on the name). Ethiopians also get their daily dose of sugar in liquid form — two, three or even four spoonfuls of sugar is acceptable for a tiny glass of tea or coffee!
Speaking of coffee, in addition to being home to the origins of humans as we know them (heard of Lucy the hominid?), Ethiopia’s also the birthplace of everybody’s favorite caffeinated drink, which is also one of its biggest exports. Ethiopians are serious about their bunna, whether grabbing a cup at the local bunna bet (coffee house) or serving it at home during the traditional coffee ceremony, where fresh green coffee beans are roasted over a fire, ground, brewed and served in tiny traditional cups. I prefer my bunna in machiatto form, with a thick layer of cream in the bottom, but cappaccinos, espresso and all the other fancy drinks you’d order at home are popular here too. There’s even a Starbucks copycat, Kaldi’s, that’s found in Addis nearly as many times as Starbucks is found in New York!
Last, but most certainly not least, there are the famous local alcohols, tella, a home-brewed beer (haven’t tried it yet), and tej, honey wine. Everyone will tell you tej is dangerous stuff and I understand why — its so sweet you’d never guess it’s up to 13% alcohol, plus it’s hard to measure how much you’ve had in the traditional beaker-shaped glasses (it looks like a science experiment!). I got to try it in a cultural restaurant my co-workers and I visited to celebrate Mehret’s last day before her return to the UK (we miss you!) and it was quite tasty indeed.
So that’s the run down (or at least a crash course) on the world of Ethiopian deliciousness! If you haven’t tried it yet, I implore you to try a restaurant nearby — promise you won’t be disappointed!