Ethiopian food is both distinctive and delicious, befitting a remarkable country with a cultural heritage that stands out from the rest of Africa.
While the cuisine of Ethiopia is gradually becoming better known, it’s no overstatement to say it remains one of the world’s best-kept secrets.
Eating Ethiopian-style means rethinking many assumptions you might have about dinnertime — for most of us this means starting with eschewing cutlery and being ready to get messy fingers.
This mode of eating is highly communal, with everyone gathering around a large circular metal tray of injera heavily laden with food as hands go back and forth scooping up from the various piles of foodstuffs with strips of injera torn from the edges.
All this can take some getting used to; tourists have been known to mistake injera for the tablecloth or for kitchen flannel. Also, the bread’s bitter, slightly sour taste can put some off. But injera’s subtle taste-enhancing power lies in how it contrasts beautifully with, as well as tempers, the fiery sauces it accompanies.
Ethiopians, like Indians, aren’t shy of adding spices. One of the most common accompaniments is berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix containing up to 16 constituent elements, including chili powder, fenugreek, ginger, garlic, cardamom and cinnamon.
Another bonus of eating Ethiopian is that injera is made from tef — the world’s smallest grain — which Ethiopians have grown and obsessed about for millennia. In America and Europe it is increasingly viewed as a “super grain,” up there with quinoa and spelt, being high in protein and calcium, and gluten-free.
The result of all of the above will have your taste buds doing somersaults, while also being good for you. Most Ethiopian dishes are nutrient-dense and low in fat.
Beyond the endless dishes on offer, it’s essential to try Ethiopian coffee after a meal. Ethiopia is reportedly the birthplace of quality Arabica coffee, and its coffees are widely praised as some of the best in the world.
Sliced beef or lamb, pan-fried in butter, garlic and onion, tibs is one of the most popular dishes among Ethiopians.
It comes in a variety of forms, varying in type, size or shape of the cuts of meat used, and can range from hot to mild or contain little to no vegetables. A particularly recommended variation is shekla tibs, in which the strips of meat arrive at your table roasting atop a clay pot stoked with hot coals — dramatic and delicious.
Historically, tibs was served to pay a compliment or show respect to someone. Today it’s still viewed as a special dish, hence its popularity for commemorating special events and holidays. At the same time, though, if you walk into a rowdy bar on a Friday afternoon in Ethiopia’s rambunctious capital, Addis Ababa, it’s likely that most of the revelers will be enthusiastically ordering and eating tibs.