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.
♦ 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.
♦ 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.)
♦ 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 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.
University of Pittsburgh