Eating Your Way Through Ethiopia
Wanderers-in-Residence Dan and Audrey travelled to Ethiopia and brought back with them a stuffed-to-the-gills report on the foods of the region. Warning: reading this post will make you hungry.
When one thinks of travelling in Africa, rarely does it garner an “Ooh, can’t wait for the food!” response. This is where Ethiopian cuisine is an exception. With its rich, spicy stews and diversity of tastes, Ethiopian is arguably one of the world’s great cuisines.
The spices and flavors that compose and define Ethiopian cuisine come from millennia of trade and cultural exchange with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. It’s this fusion of culinary influences blended with Ethiopia’s indigenous ingredients that make the flavors of its food so unique.
Many Ethiopian meals combine small portions of many dishes. They are often meant to be shared with others and to be eaten with one’s hands, all making Ethiopian food a very sociable cuisine.
So how does one get started with Ethiopian cuisine? First, the fundamentals. Then, our favorite dishes.
It’s impossible to address the topic of Ethiopian food without first explaining injera, the spongy, stretchy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia). This forms the foundation of every meal.
You’ll often find a round of injera spread out like a natural platter atop which a variety of spicy stews made from lentils, meats and vegetables blended with spices are placed. Although the presentation and flavor hints of an Indian thali, the Ethiopian table is very much unto itself.
You begin eating Ethiopian style by tearing off small pieces of injera with the right hand and scooping bits of the stews and bits into it, forming a bite sized food parcel. Restaurants will usually bring out baskets with additional pieces of rolled injera so you don’t ever have to worry about running out of it during an Ethiopian meal.
Injera has a slightly sour taste, which some might not like at first bite, but it really does complement the flavors in the Ethiopian stews. And not all injera is created equal. Usually the lighter the color, the higher quality of the tef grain and injera.
This is the spice mixture that lends the magic to most Ethiopian stews. It is composed of ground chili peppers (also called berbere, to make things confusing) mixed with upwards of 15-20 ingredients like garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, fenugreek and much, much more.
Mitmita is another spice mixture based on chili peppers (of a smaller, hotter variety) mixed with cardamom seed, cloves and salt. We would often ask for it at restaurants as a sort of chili powder topping spice to lend some more heat to our meal.
Getting Started with Ethiopian Food: Favorite Dishes
For the first time visitor, perhaps the best place to start with Ethiopian food is to order a mixed plate – either meat-based or vegetarian – so you can taste a variety of stews and dishes at one time. The portions are usually HUGE, so it’s best to share with others so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Although some dishes do appear regularly in the mixed plate, you never know for sure what you’ll get as much of it is based on what was cooked fresh that day. Always a tasty surprise!
Maheberawi (meat mixed plate) Meat-based mixed plates usually combine several stews like key wat (beef stew), tibs (lamb, beef or goat cubes cooked with Ethiopian butter and herbs), and kitfo (ground beef).
Yetsom Beyaynetu (vegetarian mixed plate) Also known as a fasting platter, yetsom beyaynetu is usually available in restaurants in Ethiopia on Wednesday and Friday when practicing Orthodox Ethiopians (the majority of the population) do not eat meat or dairy products. It will also be available during all fasting periods before Easter and Christmas.
Bigger restaurants will carry the vegetarian fasting plate every day, while smaller ones may not.
Mixed vegetarian fasting plates usually include several types of lentil stews (e.g., misir wat alecha kik wat or mesir kik) with kale (gomen) and a spicy tomato stew (sils). Talk about a vegetarian (if not a vegan) dream.
Doro Wat (Chicken Stew) This rich stew made from hours of slowing cooking onions, berbere spice and chicken is one of Ethiopia’s most famous dishes. However, it may be difficult to find at restaurants due to the amount of time it takes to prepare.
It is worth making the extra effort to find it. Begin asking for it early in your trip. Consider also asking your guide or other locals where you might be able to find it. Call ahead to the restaurant to see if it’s on the menu. If it’s not, ask if you can pre-order it for that night or the next day.
Shiro Shiro is a vegetarian stew made from chickpea flour mixed with berbere and other spices. It can be served either thick or watery. Often it will be in the center of a yetsom beyaynetu platter, but it is also usually served by itself at many restaurants.
Misir Wat (Red Lentil Stew) This rich and spicy red lentil stew was our favorite vegetarian dish, so it gets a special mention. Made with sautéed onions, berbere, cardamom and a few other magic ingredients, misir wat is the ultimate vegetarian comfort food.
Kitfo Kifto is raw ground beef mixed with berbere and other spices. Think of it as the Ethiopian version of steak tartare. Before you judge it for the fact that “it’s raw meat in Ethiopia!”, give it try. It may motivate you to reconsider your outlook on eating raw meat.
Gored Gored Even if you try kitfo and decide that raw meat is not for you, we recommend that you even more actively consider giving gored gored a try. Gored gored consists of red raw cubes of the highest quality beef warmed slightly in Ethiopian butter and tossed with berbere spice. When done well, it’s a spectacularly flavored and textured dish. Melt in your mouth delicious! We highly recommend making the effort to order this at one of the Kategna Restaurant locations in Addis Ababa.
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