Your Ethiopian Restaurant Experience: A Checklist

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AS HARD AS IT IS TO IMAGINE, some people have never visited an Ethiopian restaurant, or haven’t visited them enough to feel comfortable when they look at the menu and make their choices about what to eat and drink.

So for those unfortunate few, I’ve put together a checklist of sorts: what to order, how to order, what to drink, how to eat your food, and a little bit about what you’re eating.

I’ll presume here that you have a rudimentary knowledge of the cuisine: You eat stews atop injera, a spongy fermented unleavened bread, and you also use the injera to grab your food. The experienced Ethiopian gourmand should already know a lot of what follows. But who knows: Maybe you, too, will pick up a few tips.

I got the idea to do this after receiving a call from a writer at Yahoo News who wanted to interview me for the website’s Order Smarter series of articles that offer tips on how to negotiate different types of restaurants and cuisines. I was her source for the entry on Ethiopian cuisine.

Fortunately, the writer didn’t have room to use all of the information that I provided. So here – right below this little video I made a while back just for fun – is a much more detailed look at how to get the most out of your Ethiopian restaurant experience.

 

Go with a Group. If you go alone to an Ethiopian restaurant, you only get to try one dish. By going with a group, you get to sample lots of dishes because everyone at the table shares. Of course, you could go alone and order two entrées. But that gets expensive, plus you may not be able to stand up after you clean your plate.

Get a Beyaynetu (Vegetarian Combination Platter). If you do dine alone, this is your best bet for variety, and if you’re with a group, you certainly want veggie selections to complement your meat dishes. At some restaurants, you get small portions of a few veggie sides with a meat dish. And don’t worry if you’re the sort who doesn’t like to eat your vegetables: These will be veggies like you’ve never had them. Until you’ve eaten Ethiopian vegetarian dishes, you haven’t eaten Ethiopian.

Ethiopian Meat Is Very Lean. You won’t find any fat on the meat when you order beef or lamb dishes – or at least, you shouldn’t. If you do, then the restaurant didn’t prepare the meal well. The favorite dish doro wot consists of chicken drumsticks or thighs, and they should be very well trimmed of fat. Lamb on the bone will be a little fatty, although you don’t find that offered at too many restaurants.

But beware! That doesn’t mean Ethiopian food is low fat. In fact, far from it. Meat dishes are made with niter kibe – Ethiopian spiced clarified butter – and veggie dishes are all cooked in oil – sometimes lots of it, depending on the chef. At the end of the meal, you’ll see that the injera is soaked with butter or oil. It’s delicious, this oily injera, and you should eat it. But the cuisine is not low fat.

Ethiopians love their raw meats. Pictured here is  gored gored (foreground) and kitfo (background).

Ethiopians love their raw meats. Pictured here is
gored gored (foreground) and kitfo (background).

You Can Handle the Spice. “Spicy” Ethiopian dishes really aren’t all that fiery hot: I like to say that the cuisine is spiced but not spicy. I’ve eaten with people who were shy around spicy foods and found Ethiopian spice levels to be fine. You can always ask your server for a sample to see if it’s too spicy for you. Any dish called a wot on the menu will have berbere, the red pepper, and any dish called an alicha will not, so it’ll be milder. But unless you simply cannot handle pepper of any kind, you’ll be fine.

Eat with Your Hand, Not Your Hands. Strictly speaking, you should only use your right hand to eat: Tear off a piece of injera with your right hand only, and then grab your food with it. But most Americans will use two hands for the tearing off process. Also, only injera should ever touch your hands, and your fingers should never touch your mouth – you place the injera with the food into your mouth without salivating all over your fingertips. But again, that rarely happens in America, so have lots of napkins handy.

A Few Words About Injera. Your injera should be moist, and at room temperature or warm, but not cold. Some restaurants make their own injera in large batches, then freeze it and defrost it as needed. In big cities, you’ll sometimes find injera bakeries that make it fresh every day and sell it to restaurants.

Ethiopians in the homeland prefer to make their injera with pure teff, a gluten-free grain. But outside of Ethiopia, because teff is more expensive than other flours, restaurants mix it with wheat and/or barley, so it’s not gluten free. Still, in some big cities, you can get pure teff injera imported from Ethiopia, and I highly recommend it. Just be careful if your server tells you their injera is gluten free: That’s only true if it’s pure teff, which you rarely find at an Ethiopian restaurant in America.

Ambo mineral water from Ethiopia

Ambo mineral water from Ethiopia

Consider an Appetizer. Ethiopians back home don’t really have or serve appetizers, so restaurants in America have taken a few dishes and turned them into suitable starters.

Most will offer a sambussa, a small triangular “pastry” of deep fried dough filled with lentils or beef (a bit like the Indian samosa). You’ll sometimes find ayib (Ethiopian cheese) as an appetizer, or even butecha, a vegetarian dish made with chick peas, onions, jalapeños and lemon juice, although I prefer butecha on my beyaynetu. For a “salad” before a meal, there’s keysir dinich – that is, beets and potatoes.

Another pre-meal treat is kategna: pieces of injera smeared with niter kibe and berbere. The restaurant should toast the injera in an oven to make it lightly crispy, but some simply apply the butter and spice to moist injera and serve it rolled up.

So What Should You Order? Most Ethiopian restaurant menus will explain the ingredients of a dish – sort of. These explanations can get lost in the translation, and sometimes, they don’t exactly describe the texture of the dish.

A wot or an alicha will be a juicy stew – the former spicy, the latter not. A dish called tibs won’t be as juicy, and it might even have no sauce or juice at all – it’s simply stir fried in niter kibe, with some spices, onion and pepper. That kind of dish is called derek (dry) tibs in Amharic. Personally, I prefer a wot – because it’s spicy and juicy – to any form of tibs.

As for a veggie combo, that’s a little easier: Just read the description of the dish and order what sounds good. Some of my favorites are fasolia (green beans, carrots, onions, etc.), misir wot (spicy red lentils), tikil gomen (cabbage and carrots) and shiro (hard to describe concisely, but it’s made from chick peas or yellow peas). I always get those four on my beyaynetu if I can.

The national dish of Ethiopia is often considered to be doro wot, a chicken drumstick (or sometimes thigh, which I prefer) on the bone in a thick rich red sauce (called a kulet). It’s delicious, but I find that at most Ethiopian restaurants, portions are small, so you may not have enough entrée to enjoy. If you want chicken, I’d recommend a dish made with breast meat: doro tibs wot, for example. For beef, consider siga wot, and for lamb, ye’beg wot. (Caution: Spellings of the dishes can vary from place to place.)

Have Some Raw Meat. For an authentic taste of something Ethiopians relish, consider getting some tere siga – that is, raw meat. The most common dish is kitfo: ground meat seasoned with cardamom, niter kibe and mitmita (a hot red pepper), traditionally served with a side of ayib (Ethiopian cheese). I don’t think the heat level of mitmita in the kitfo will be a problem, and in fact, you can even ask for some mitmita powder on the side to dip your food if you want it hotter. You can ask for your kitfo to be served lebleb (slightly cooked) or yebesele (fully cooked), but that’s not how Ethiopians do it. You can also try gored gored, which are chunks of raw meat that you dip into the mitmita powder before eating. (I wrote about the Ethiopian love of raw meat for The Los Angeles Times.)

Tej served in a berele

Tej served in a berele

What To Drink? If you like to order bottled water at restaurants, see if the place has Ambo, a brand of Ethiopian spring water that exports to the U.S. It’s lightly sparkling.

For wine, you can choose from several brands made in Ethiopia and exported around the world: There’s Dukam, Axumit, Gouder, Kemila and Awash Crystal. The first three are red, the others are white, and they’re all semi-sweet to semi-dry, Gouder being the driest of the five. There’s also a new line of Ethiopian wines just now being exported: It comes from a French company making wine in Ethiopia with grapes grown there, and you could be the first kid on your block to try one. The company offers two lines, Rift Valley and Acacia – seven wines in all, including a Merlot, a Chardonnay, and a Syrah.

Or you can try one of several Ethiopian beer exports: Meta, Bedele, Dashen, Bati, Harar, Hakim Stout and St. George. The Hakim is dark, like its name suggests, and the rest are lagers. My favorite is Dashen, which has a hint of sweetness to it. At an Eritrean restaurant, look for Asmara, a beer named for the country’s capital.

But for the most authentic beverage with your Ethiopian meal, you need to try some t’ej, the 2,000-year-old Ethiopian honey wine. Nearly a dozen wineries in the U.S. (and a few in Europe) make it, and you can find it at almost every restaurant that serves alcohol. If possible, see if the restaurant can serve your t’ej in a berele, a small flask-like bottle with a long neck. In Ethiopia, where insects are often attracted to the sweet wine, you can put your thumb over the top of the berele to keep them out between sips.

But be careful: Servers at restaurants will sometimes tell you that their t’ej “comes from Ethiopia,” when in fact it probably comes from wineries in California, New York, Indiana or Colorado. I don’t think the servers are trying to trick you: Some have just never read the label, and others probably mean that t’ej is Ethiopian, not even knowing where their particular t’ej comes from. There is, in fact, one brand of t’ej made in Ethiopia and exported to the U.S.: Nigest Honey Wine. But it’s hard to find in U.S. restaurants.

Finally, you might get lucky and find a restaurant that serves its own t’ej, probably made in the kitchen in jars. Winery t’ej is clear and filtered, but homemade t’ej is cloudier and has a noticeably different taste. This t’ej is sometimes sweeter than the winery varieties – it depends on who’s making it and how long the maker lets it ferment. But try it if you can for a more authentic experience: It will taste much more like what you’ll find in Ethiopian homes and restaurants. (Visit my other website, All About T’ej, to learn much more about this wonderful wine.)

Coffee being poured from a jebena into a sini

Coffee being poured from a jebena into a sini

Coffee After Your Meal. If you’re a coffee drinker, then an Ethiopian restaurant is the place for you: Ethiopians were the first people to cultivate coffee as a food, in the ninth century, so it’s an important part of Ethiopian culture, as well as a point of culture pride. Ask your server if they have imported Ethiopian varieties of coffee, such as Yirgacheffe, Sidama, Harar or Limu.

For a Ethiopian experience, some restaurants offer to perform the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. In Ethiopia, social life often revolves around coffee, and when families and neighbors have time, they gather for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which can take two or three hours – including the drinking, chatting and munching on crunchy grain snacks, like popcorn or kolo (roasted barley). The hostess roasts the beans over charcoals, then grinds them and brews the coffee in a clay pot called a jebena. The small cups in which the coffee is served are called sini. Of course, restaurants that offer a ceremony abbreviate things, but your server will bring the roasting beans over to your table and wave her hand above them so the aromatic smoke can waft into your nostrils. She’ll then serve your coffee from a jebena and pour it into a sini.

Ending with Something Sweet. There are no native Ethiopian desserts – it’s not a sweets culture – so if you want some after your meal, it won’t be “authentic.” Restaurants tend to offer desserts like tiramisu, baklava, ice cream, pies and the likes – if they offer dessert at all. Some places will create their own desserts and give them Ethiopian names.

So there it is, your Ethiopian dinner from entrée to dessert. If you live in a city with lots of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants, give a few a try. And if you only have one in your city, go there often. You wouldn’t want to lose it.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

In Ethiopian Cooking, Onions Rule

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AN ETHIOPIAN WOMAN may be the queen of her kitchen, but she serves an indispensable king.

“Onions have a regal place in all Ethiopian cooking,” Daniel Mesfin says in his book, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking. In fact, he calls it King Onion, and he highly recommends “the oval, deep purplish and mild Italian bulb which is also excellent for salads.” Dalo’s Kitchen, an Ethiopian restaurant in Portland, Ore., says it offers a “variety of vegetables cooked in mild caramelized onion sauce.” That’s a good way to describe the foundation of Ethiopian dishes.

Women in Ethiopia cooking a huge pot of onions

Women in Ethiopia cooking a huge pot of onions

Lena Deresse, in her loving little book, Cooking with Imaye – that is, her mother – remembers a childhood spent watching her mother go through “the pain-staking labor of peeling and chopping what was often an enormous bag of onions. It was not uncommon for my mom to go through 15 to 20 pounds of onions in a single day when cooking.”

Virtually every Ethiopian dish requires at least some onions, and most require a lot of them. You can even prepare an Ethiopian dabo (bread) packed with onions cooked in spicy berbere powder and kibe (rich Ethiopian butter). In America, most cooks use red onions, and nowadays, that’s what many Ethiopians use back home as well. But for the most authentic cooking, many Ethiopians say, you need to use shallots, that little brother to the larger onions that we most commonly use in the United States.

The Amharic word for onion is shinkurt, the Tigrinya word is shigurti, and in Afaan Oromo, it’s called shinkurtti or qullubbi diimaa. That single Afaan Oromo word sounds very much like shinkurt, but the two-word phrase for onion translates literally as “garlic red.” Interestingly, the Amharic term for garlic is nech shinkurt, or literally, “white onion.” And it’s the same principle in Tigrinya: garlic is called shigurti ts’ada, or “onion white.” So all three of these Ethiopian languages equate onions with garlic.

In America, Ethiopian cooks will almost always use red onions, unless they have the time and patience to use shallots: The former is large, and you have to peel and chop less to get more; the latter is small and much more labor intensive. In Ethiopia, too, the red onion has become common. But for many, the shallot is still prized.

“Although bulb onions can be grown in the tropics, farmers in tropical countries prefer shallots for their ability to propagate vegetatively,” Kebede Woldetsadik writes in his 2003 thesis at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “Shallots are also preferred for their shorter growth cycle, better tolerance to disease and drought stresses and longer storage life than the common onion and for their distinct flavor that persists after cooking.” He notes that “shallots in particular are widely cultivated as a source of income by peasant farmers in many parts of the country.”

Yenus Ousman Kemal says that “since it has strong pungency and longer life of stew prepared with it, shallot is preferred to onions for flavoring of the local stew wot to be used in daily meals of many houses in Ethiopia.” The scholar Dessie Getahun concurs that the shallot is “preferred by most Ethiopians for its strong pungent culinary value.”

A 2009 report from the Ethiopian agricultural ministry says that “the shallot is believed to have come from Western Asia [and] has been in cultivation from a remote period” – that is, for a long, long time. Onions, the report says, are “considerably important in the daily Ethiopian diet. All the plant parts are edible, but the bulbs and the lower stems sections are the most popular as seasonings or as vegetables in stews.” This is interesting, for it positions the onion – which is newer to Ethiopian agriculture – and not the shallot, as a key ingredient in cooking.

Onions for sale in a small-town Ethiopian market

Onions for sale in a small-town Ethiopian market

Ethiopian cookbooks today all include red onions in their list of ingredients. But in the early 1970s, the Ethiopian American Cook Book has “shallots” in every recipe that calls for onions. The book presents its recipes in Amharic on one side and in English on the other, so we read kay shinkurt on the left and “shallots” on the right. But kay shinkurt translates literally as “red onion.” There is, in fact, no separate word for “shallot” in Amharic: Where kay shinkurt used to mean shallots, now it can mean shallots or red onions.

Shallots have a short growing season – just three months, which means more yields per year in a tropical climate. But the plant requires a lot of water, so it can only grow well in the Ethiopian highlands, although irrigation has brought shallot production a wider range in the country.

Scientifically, there’s little difference between the common cooking onion and the shallot: The former is called Allium cepa L., the latter Allium cepa L. var. ascalonicum. And garlic, or “white onion” in Amharic, is Allium sativum. So all three come from the same genus.

Think of them, then, as mutually intelligible dialects of the same language. Onions and shallots differ slightly in some chemical properties, and that could account for why some cooks say they taste different when used in an Ethiopian dish, although it may take an especially sensitive palate to detect the difference. Garlic, of course, differs even further from its genetic kin, and it’s used more sparingly in cooking.

Onions are also a good source of antioxidants: Studies have found that a white onion has an antioxidant value of 85, and the purple onion 143, just a little less than spinach and green peppers. It’s also a rich source of flavonoids, the consumption of which “has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes,” the Ethiopian scientist Yemane Kahsay wrote in 2013. “In addition, it is known for anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory potential.”

In fact, Yemane has written several papers about the most efficient way to plant onions to get higher yields out of a crop. He found that “lack of improved varieties and production practices have been the major bottlenecks of onion production and productivity,” and that the average bulb weight increased when farmers use a particular method of “intra-row spacing.”

Ethiopian Onion Humor What does a wallet and an onion  have in common? They both make you cry when you open them.

Ethiopian Onion Humor
What does a wallet and an onion have in common?
They both make you cry when you open them.

Making a spicy Ethiopian wot or a milder alicha begins with onions, and you have to cook them thoroughly and watchfully.

“One of the things that I had the most trouble with is sautéing the onions,” Lena writes in her book. “When making the base for the wot, it is very important that one slow cooks the onions until they reach a paste-like consistency. In the process, one has to constantly stir in order to avoid burning the onions. Many a time, I’ve ruined a perfectly good batch of chopped onions because I stepped away from the stove for too long. Back to the peeling and dicing I would go, and the tedious work would start all over.”

I can attest to the authenticity of Lena’s account: You have to stand by your onions the way you would a child crossing a busy city street. With a dish like doro wot, for example, you need to cook and cook the onions until they dry and thicken, adding bits of water when necessary to keep them from burning – to “bring them back from the edge,” as my friend Menkir Tamrat puts it. When you serve the wot, he adds, you “don’t want the onions looking back at you.”

It’s a lot of work, but if you do it right, you’ll be glad you did: The kulet – that is, the sauce – of a well-prepared doro wot is a deep dark red – almost black – and it’s rich with the flavor of onions, niter kibe, berbere and a touch of t’ej.

An Ethiopian market in Washington sells  chopped onions in a box, a time-saving accommodation

An Ethiopian market in Washington sells
chopped onions in a box, a time-saving accommodation

For other wots and alichas, I’ve found, you don’t have to give your life over to the onions for quite as long a time. But you do have to cook them well, and you have to chop them finely before you begin to cook. For years, I did this with a hand chopper, which worked well enough. But lately, I’ve compromised, and now I use a food processor to prepare my onions for cooking. I felt guilty about this until an Ethiopian friend confessed that he, too, sometimes does the same.

And there are ways to feel even guiltier. At Black Lion Market in Washington, D.C., I found boxes of chopped onions for sale – a great time saver for Ethiopian chefs. But what if you want freshly chopped onions for your wot that you didn’t have to chop yourself? For that, you need to employ the services of Ashenafi Bekele, a resident of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who launched an onion-chopping business in 2012. He invented his own machine to do the job, and he charges one birr (about five cents) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of onions. His clients are largely restaurants that need a lot of chopped onions each day.

Then there are the dishes for which you only need to slice the onions: For tibs – or meat fried in butter – just cut the onions into bite-sized pieces and toss them into the meat along with spices and maybe some karya (jalapeño pepper). You’ll see the onion on the injera, but that’s how it’s supposed to be for these dishes.

Onions are so important to the culture that Ethiopian scholars have written dissertations about growing and harvesting them. Tadesse Mihiretu wrote a master’s thesis about Ethiopian farmers’ efforts to adopt improved ways to produce and package onions. He concluded that the government must better educate farmers and help them financially to improve onion yields. Adugna Teka’s master’s thesis looked at ways to improve markets for onion, tomato and papaya in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia. Several things hamper the marketing of onions, among them poor irrigation, “weight cheating,” and “unfair pricing of products by wholesalers.”

Ashenafi Bekele and his onion-chopping machine

Ashenafi Bekele and his onion-chopping machine

There is at least one exception to the “onion in every pot” rule of Ethiopian cuisine. Although the Gurage people make up only about 2.5 percent of the Ethiopian population, they’re well known in food circles for having contributed kitfo, the popular dish of raw meat that has been chopped – or ground, in western parlance – and mixed with niter kibe, mitmita and cardamon. You’ll find it on the menu of almost every Ethiopian restaurant, and it’s ubiquitous in Ethiopia as well.

Kitfo is that rare Ethiopian dish that doesn’t call for onions, and when Gurages make dishes that are part of the national cuisine – that is, the food we know from Ethiopian restaurants – they do prepare them with onions. But Gurages prepare a variety of dishes unique in various ways to their culture, the absence of onions being their most distinguishing feature.

So whereas the national dish called gomen consists of collard greens stewed in oil, onions and spices, the Gurage have many gomen preparations that eschew onions. There’s even a dish called gomen kitfo that uses the generic meaning of kitfo, which comes from the verb katafa, meaning to mince or chop.

As I flip through the many recipes in my Gurage cookbook, I find no recipe with onion (shinkurt), and also none with garlic (nech shinkurt). In fact, an Ethiopian friend tells me that when preparing a Gurage kitfo (chopped) dish, the chef must wash the utensils to make sure they haven’t been “contaminated” by onions. There’s also no berbere in Gurage cuisine, perhaps because it has onions in it, and instead, Gurages use the much hotter mitmita in a recipe that calls for heat.

Still, I have encountered a few mentions of onions in Gurage cooking.

The anthropologist William Shack is one of the foremost authorities on Gurage culture, and in his 1977 article, “Cooking in the Garden of Ensete,” co-authored with his wife, Dorothy, he ends with some recipes. The vegetable dishes – gomen and misir wot – that would normally have onions in highland cuisine have none here. But Shack’s recipe for niter kibe calls for “one medium-sized onion.” He says that the vegetable dishes are “prepared in the form of a hash,” and he uses the word kәtfwä to describe them. They are, in other words, minced or chopped, so this is kitfo in the general sense of the word.

Onion farmers in Ethiopia with their harvest

Onion farmers in Ethiopia with their harvest

I also learned about a Gurage dish called oqut from Assefa Delil, a Gurage man who worked at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, D.C., in 2009 when I visited there. It’s made from young pumpkin leaves that you boil until the upper part separates from the lower part, and then you mix it with onion, garlic and a lot of niter kibe and ayib (Ethiopian cheese). This Gurage dish has never become part of the national cuisine like kitfo has.

At the embassy, I also met Fikerte Kidanemariam, who had served as the ambassador’s assistant since 1999. She isn’t a cook by profession — Kebebush Demissie prepared meals at the time for the ambassador and his family at their home two miles away — but she was the embassy’s unofficial chief consultant on cuisine.

Fikerte agreed that there are few, if any secret ingredients in Ethiopian cooking. It’s all about technique, and to some degree, predilection. As for onions, you do have to use just the right quantity, and you have to cook them for the proper length of time: until they brown, for a dark spicy wot, but not so long for a milder, lighter alicha.

“You have to take your time and cook it properly,” Fikerte told me. “Some people just use a few minutes to cook food.” Still, she acknowledges that “even when people use the same ingredients,” one woman’s wot can taste different than her sister’s version.

onion-production-in-the-rift-valley-of-ethiopia

Kebebush was so good that her colleagues at the embassy claimed she once won a cooking competition against Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised New York City celebrity chef and restaurateur. They say she even chopped onions faster than he did.

Carl and Pat Templin, a retired Pittsburgh couple, lived in Ethiopia as newlyweds in the 1970s, and they still maintain a love for the culture decades later.

To keep close to a place that’s been so important in their lives, the Templins enjoy meeting Ethiopians who move to Pittsburgh or who just live there temporarily. They assembled a gathering of Ethiopian friends at their home in May 2009: Each woman brought a wot to share, and Pat made a few herself.

About 15 years ago, they hosted a dinner at their home in Pittsburgh for some Ethiopian women attending a city college. The visiting women cooked in the truest tradition of their national cuisine, with lots of onions in their wots. Like the food itself, it’s a memory that lingers, and these many years later, Carl recalls: “The onion smell in the house for weeks was wonderful.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

 

Here’s a video, in Amharic, about bringing onions to market in Ethiopia:

 

Preparing onions for wot at an Ethiopian restaurant:

 

Here’s a look at an Ethiopian onion farm.

 

And here. on the lighter side, are the Onion Boys, two Ethiopian guys preparing onions to make wot:

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