Eating and Drinking in Ethiopia
By Marie Javins
Injera is the staple food of Ethiopia. It’s flat, spongy, bread made from tef, a gluten-free grain found only in the African Horn. It serves as both plate and utensils, and is even shredded into some salads. It’s the love-it-or-hate-it part of Ethiopian cuisine as its distinctive sourdough-like taste is not for everyone. Varying grades of tef make different grades of injera.
Pureed spiced vegetables, chicken drumsticks, hard-boiled eggs, and/or fried meats arrive in little piles on a wide pancake of injera.
Diners are presented with another piece of injera, which they tear into small pieces (using their right hands only). The small pieces are used to consume the puddles of veggies (“wat”) or piles of fried meat (sometimes “wat” or “tibs”) on the plate of injera.
Vegetarians do well on Wednesdays and Fridays, when no meat is eaten. But they suffer the rest of the week when chicken, beef
lamb and goat are standard dishes.
Vegetarians will find a great deal to eat during Ethiopian Lent in March and April, unless they travel in southeastern Muslim areas where Lent is not observed (but Ramadan is). Supermarkets in Addis are well supplied for self-caterers.
Kitfo is warmed meat that is raw. Most tourist literature advises against eating it for health reasons, but it is an integral part of Ethiopian cuisine and could be sampled at an upscale, reliable restaurant or hotel or at a US Ethiopian restaurant.
Kolo is a snack food that may be available during long bus journeys. It is roasted barley, often served in a paper cone. It tastes a bit like popcorn kernels, and popcorn is also a common Ethiopian snack.
Tej is a honey wine, with a deceptively sweet taste that masksits high alcohol content. It’s available in bars frequented by men, while women drink it at markets and in restaurants.
Ambo is a ubiquitous, fizzy bottled mineral water, named for its source that is near the town of Ambo. Other soft drinks include western standards and freshly squeezed juices. Plain tap water is fine in Ethiopia, but avoid it to play it safe.
Coffee is as important to Ethiopians as it is to Americans. Perhaps more so. Ethiopia holds a credible claim to being the birthplace of coffee and highland-grown coffee is its biggest export. An entire ceremony has grown up around coffee, with beans being roasted and ground in front of the guest. Tea is common in lowland Muslim areas.
Western meals are available in larger towns, and pasta is often available even in rural areas. Addis Ababa features restaurants for all tastes and budgets, including Ristorante Castelli (fine Italian), Sangam (Indian), Tomaca (coffee), Burger Queen (burgers), and La Notre (European-style bakery/cafe). The Sheraton and Hilton feature upscale restaurants and Sunday brunches.
Find an Ethiopian restaurant near you. Recommended restaurants include Merkato in Los Angeles, Addis Ababa in Washington DC, and Meskerem in New York. In traditional Ethiopian restaurants, meals are eaten around a mesob — or short, colorful, woven table — and water will be poured over your hands before the food is served. In the U.S., modern tables and chairs are more common in Ethiopian communities.
Ethiopian Airlines operates inexpensive daily flights between Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, Gonder, Axum, and Lalibela.
Buses leave from a central location when full, with gates opening at 6 a.m. Tourists are considered guests and are allowed on early, thereby avoiding the stampede for seats. Officially, no one is allowed to stand, and buses may not operate after dark. Luggage goes on top of bus; cover it with plastic to avoid dust and rain. Buy your ticket the day before if possible, take snacks, and expect delays. It is local custom to tip the luggage handler.
To see the countryside and travel with ease, go on a group tour. There are not large buses full of gawking tourists, but are small groups accompanied by expert guides that are trained to deal with Ethiopia’s rough roads and surprises.
Marie Javins is a comic book illustrator and author who lives in Los Angeles. She traveled around the world twice and wrote many stories about her adventures
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