Ethiopian food is based on millennia of tradition. The country’s civilization dates to 2,000 B.C., and its roots are even older. The country has ties to ancient Egypt and upheld the traditions of Judaism before Christianity took over in the fourth century, forming the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Islam arrived in the 600s. For centuries, these belief systems have coexisted and influenced Ethiopian cooking.
“Trading with far Asia and the Middle East, especially Yemen, as well as the various battles across our history—including the one with Italy and its four years of occupation in 1935—are also factors that have shaped our cuisine,” says Yohanis Gebreyesus, in his new cookbook, Ethiopia (Interlink, 2019). “Yet never colonized, Ethiopia’s culinary and cultural diversity is a point of pride to the continent.”
A few trivia tidbits: Ethiopian Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim faiths all prohibit consumption of pork or shellfish; instead, goat, chicken and beef are more commonly eaten. Vegan dishes are served on religious-fasting days. The Italian occupation created a taste for pasta. Coffee is ritually prepared after every meal; the ceremony includes flowers, prayers and incense and is served with popcorn. Dining etiquette dictates that the right hand is used to eat, and gursha (“mouthful”) is a common rite of feeding friends and family bites of food as a display of friendship or love.
The backbone of Ethiopian cuisine is injera, a spongy, fermented, round flatbread that is used as a plate, torn off and used to scoop bite-sized pieces of stew. The bread is made from teff, the country’s most widely grown crop, with grains the size of a poppy seed. Teff has been cultivated for 3,000 years. It is gluten-free, very nutritious and, today, grown around the world.
“Food is an object of survival, an entity believed to feed the body and soul across different cultures around the world. In Ethiopia, on the other hand, it holds another crucial dimension, one that conveys a positive human energy through a powerful saying ‘enebla,’” Gebreyesus says. “Enebla translates to ‘let us eat’ and our staple food injera is made in a way that invites more than one hand to the meal. It is a moment of sharing, of caring, and of showing respect for one another.”
Most Ethiopian dishes can be characterized as a selection of wot, or stewed dishes. Wot’s base is a mix of chopped red onion, grated garlic and ginger, known as kulet, cooked in niter kibbeh, a clarified butter. Spices are a part of every dish, too. Berbere is a blend of powdered chili pepper and other spices used in red stews, while fiery orange-red mitmita is a blend of piri piri peppers, cardamom seed, cloves and salt. Fish, beef, chicken, goat or lamb is added, as well as vegetables like potatoes, carrots or chard. Lentils and split peas are also common.
Ethiopian cuisine presents a routine-busting opportunity to bring centuries of tradition and history to your modern-day table. Get started by shopping for teff, spices and other Ethiopian staples, and trying our recipe for One-Day Injera