THE CUISINE WE KNOW as “Ethiopian” is made up largely of the food of the Amhari culture. Centuries ago, the Amharis seized power in an expanding Ethiopia, and as they incorporated other cultures into the national whole, they spread their way of cooking and eating.
But things spread the other way, too, and today, some of the foods in the Ethiopian repertoire come from these other cultures.
Please understand that what you just read makes a very long story very, very short. Ethiopians speak more than 80 languages, each one accompanying a different historic culture, and some of these cultures even resist being called “Ethiopians.” They feel they’ve been conquered or “occupied,” and they dream of liberation and freedom.
I’m not here to resolve centuries-old political disputes. So let me introduce you to some of the foods and dishes that came from non-Amhari cultures and found their way onto the Ethiopian table. I write more about all of these dishes in my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.
Kitfo. The Gurage make up only a very small percentage of the Ethiopian population. But kitfo, their contribution to the dinner table, has become such a staple that Gurages now must proudly remind people that it’s theirs. It’s a simple dish: raw ground beef seasoned with kibe (Ethiopian spiced butter), cardamom and mitmita (the hottest of the red pepper powders). You heat the butter in a skillet, remove it from the heat, then mix in the meat and spices. The traditional accompaniment is ayib, or Ethiopian cheese, easily made at home by very gently boiling buttermilk or plain yogurt, then pouring off the whey, or liquid, leaving you with spongy white curds.
Most Ethiopian eat their kitfo prepared tere, which means raw. Some prefer it lebleb, or lightly cooked, though sometimes this version still turns out to be pink and mushy, depending on the chef. I, however, take mine yebesele, or fully cooked. I just don’t eat raw animal flesh (that includes sushi). At a restaurant in Chicago a few years ago, I ordered kitfo prepared lebleb, assuming it would be at least a little bit cooked. It wasn’t. Another time, at the same place, I got it yebesele, and it was fine.
I did once eat some lebleb, at the now-gone Gori Café in Washington, D.C. As I waited for the meal that I’d ordered, I chatted with the owner and his friend, and the server brought them their food: kitfo, prepared lebleb. Of course, being a polite host, the owner offered me a taste, and I, wanting to be a polite guest, had to accept. It was actually very good, and obviously, I survived. But Gori’s version of lebleb was much more cooked than the one I’d encountered a few years earlier.
Chechebsa. This Oromo contribution to the national cuisine doesn’t turn up at restaurants too often. I first ate it at Gori Café, and I’ve since found it at Royal Coffee, an Ethiopian-owned coffee shop and restaurant in Chicago with lots of American sandwiches and platters and two four-dish Ethiopian offerings, one of which includes chechebsa. It’s small piece of fried wheat dough soaked in kibe and spiced with berbere. The butter and the spice make it moist and fiery.
Ambasha. Tigrayan culture contributed this traditional bread, a festive alternative to the staple injera. It’s round and thick, made by kneading and baking flour. You use a knife to carve a design in the top before baking, and when it’s done, you can smear the top with olive oil spiced with berbere. Sometimes you’ll see it written as hambasha, which is really a more accurate transliteration of the Amharic and Tigrinya spellings. But it’s usually written as ambasha in English.
Ful. Here’s a dish you may want to have with a nice chianti: It’s made with fava beans, and it’s usually served for breakfast. To prepare it, you cook and mash the beans, then mix them with chopped onions, tomatoes and a touch of cumin. The dish, which is tasty and substantial, is usually served with a thicker bread, like a baguette or an ambasha, rather than the traditional Ethiopian injera. It came to Ethiopia from Arabic culture: Islam is a major religion in Ethiopia, which has had centuries of contact with its Arabic neighbors to the east and west. Sometimes you’ll see it written as foul, but that’s an over-transliteration. Ful better represents the Amharic spelling.
I enjoyed ful for breakfast one morning at Tiramisu, a coffee shop in Silver Spring, Md., owned by an Ethiopian woman. But it’s a good thing I can read Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia: Ful isn’t on the regular, American-style, English-language menu, and I only knew they served it when I saw a handwritten sign in the window listing ful, chechebsa and a few other dishes.
Enset. This is the rarest of the rare, and you won’t find enset-based dishes at Ethiopian restaurants in America. It’s a tree-like plant, often called the “false banana” because it resembles a banana plant, and it’s very important to numerous Ethiopian cultures, especially in the south of the country, where it grows abundantly. Enset bears no edible fruit, and the bark of the tree is the food: chopped up and boiled, or ground into meal to make a sauce, or to make qocho, a bread that you bury in the ground to ferment. I’ve found only one restaurant in the U.S. that serves it: Merkamo in Springfield, Va., outside of Washington. The restaurant’s name means “beautiful” in the language of the Gurage people, who use enset in their cuisine.
Bula is a fine white enset powder used to make a rather sandy and unpalatable porridge: You prepare it by mixing the powder with water and then seasoning it with kibe. This is the only form in which I’ve ever found enset in an Ethiopian grocery store in America. I bought some bula and tried it – once.
Many other unique cultural dishes haven’t entered what’s commonly known as the “national cuisine,” and you’ll have to go to Ethiopia to try them. So take advantage of this diversity when you can here in America, and treat yourself to some kitfo – tere if you dare, yebesele if you’re having dinner with me.
University of Pittsburgh