Ethiopia has the most distinctive cuisine in Africa, and also perhaps the spiciest, which means it tends to appeal most to travellers with a taste for curries and other fiery dishes. Aside from a few very upmarket establishments in Addis Ababa, eating out is very cheap.
Addis, like most capital cities, boasts a cosmopolitan selection of restaurants, with most international cuisines (in particular Italian) well represented. Elsewhere in the country, tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants in larger towns tend to serve a mix of local dishes and unimaginative faranji food. In smaller towns away from the main tourist centres, the selection is usually limited to a few Ethiopian dishes.
Made from a highly nutritious grain called teff that’s unique to Ethiopia, the main staple of Ethiopian food is injera, which looks like a large foamy pancake and has a rather sour taste as a result of the dough being fermented for a few days prior to being cooked. Injera is normally served to cover a full plate (or, more accurately, a round tray), with one or several accompanying dishes. The idea is that the diner tears off a piece of injera with their hand, scoops up some of the accompaniment, then places it in their mouth. Ethiopians eat communally, with everybody sharing one plate, and use their right hand only, for sanitary reasons. Travellers who quickly overdose on injera, or who prefer to avoid communal eating, will find that most local restaurants, even in small towns, offer at least one alternative, usually bread (dabo, generally quite fresh) or pasta (for which read cold and overcooked spaghetti).
Injera is usually eaten accompanied by a stew called wot, which comes in two generic forms. These are the hot key wot (red stew), flavoured with beriberi (ground chilli), onions and garlic, and the blander alicha wot (yellow stew), which also includes onions and garlic, but no beriberi. On non-fasting days, wot is usually made with meat, of which the main types are lamb (bege), goat (figel), beef (bure) and fish (asa). To specify what you want, you could ask, for instance, for bege key wot (lamb in red sauce) or bure alicha wat (beef in yellow sauce). The national dish, doro wot (chicken stew), is usually served only on social occasions or in traditional restaurants aimed at tourists. Other very popular dishes (served with injera or bread) include siga tibs (meat fried with peppers), kitfo (spicy raw or lightly cooked mincemeat), gulash (a mild spicy stew) and siga or asakutilet (crumbed meat or fish cutlet). These are mostly also served with injera or bread. You may also be offered sekondo misto – a mixture of all the different dishes on the menu.
Christian Ethiopians recognize more than two hundred fasting days in any given year, a list that includes the forty days of lent, every Wednesday and Friday, and several other religious days besides. It is forbidden to consume any animal produce on fasting days, which is good news for vegans and vegetarians, since it means that even the most inauspicious of local eating holes in Christian areas will cater to their requirements more than half the time. The most popular fasting dish is shiro key wot, made from ground chickpeas. Alternatively, just ask for atkilt beyaynetu, a mini-buffet consisting of various vegan dishes heaped on the injera.
For those with an insatiable appetite for injera, a standard local breakfast dish is yinjera firfir, which consists of torn-up hunks of injera soaked in key wot. For greater nutritional variety, ask for inkolala tibs, literally fried eggs, but usually scrambled together with slices of chilli, pepper, onion and/or tomato. A more localized breakfast dish, commonest in the east, is ful, a spicy and garlicky dish made with fried fava beans. Addis Ababa and most other larger towns have several pastry shops where you can grab a more continental-style breakfast of cakes and bread (or if you are lucky, croissants and mini-pizzas) washed down with fresh fruit juice and coffee.
Tap water is generally regarded as unsafe to drink. Still mineral water is sold all over the country in eco-unfriendly 500ml and 1.5l plastic bottles. Inexpensive carbonated water, bottled in 750ml recyclable glass, is widely available and best asked for by the regional brand names Ambo (north, south and west) and Babile (east). The usual international brand-name soft drinks, known generically as leslasa, are ubiquitous, cheap, and more sugary even than the same brands would be in Europe or North America. A much healthier local speciality is fruit juice, or more accurately a smoothie-like puréed fresh fruit concoction known as jus. The most common types are avocado, guava, papaya, mango and banana, depending on seasonal availability, or you could just ask for espris, which comprises layers of several different types. Spiced tea (shai) and strong espresso coffee are also drunk all over Ethiopia.
With regard to alcoholic drinks, inexpensive locally bottled lagers are sold throughout Ethiopia. Popular brands include Dashen, Bedele, St George, Harar and Castel. Cheaper draught lager is served on tap at some bars and restaurants in Addis Ababa and other larger towns. Ethiopia has been a low-scale wine producer for several decades. The established Gouder brand, produced in Awash, is rather indifferent, but the recently launched Rift Valley range, produced by the Castel Vineyard outside Ziway, is more than acceptable. Imported wines are also available at better restaurants.
Something of an acquired taste, tej is a mead-like beverage usually made from honey (mar). It varies greatly in alcohol content, with the mildest forms being no more intoxicating than lager and the strongest more comparable to a spirit, so be sure to ask what you are getting. The best quality tej is usually served in specialist tej bets or restaurants, several of which are mentioned in this guide. The other main local tipple is a rather sour and gravelly home-brewed millet or maize beer called t’ella.
Top image: Injera food © Shutterstock