EVEN ETHIOPIAN FAMILIES get tired of eating at home every day. But what kind of restaurant options do Ethiopians in the homeland have if they want a break from injera and wot – or even if they just want a day off from having to prepare it?
In most Ethiopian cities and towns, you’re likely to find a restaurant that serves spaghetti or other Italian dishes, although the farther you travel from a population center, the more limited your choices become – if you have any choices at all.
It’s no wonder that the phenomenon of the public restaurant is relatively recent in Ethiopia. Only 12.6 percent of the people in urban areas of Ethiopia cook with modern energy supplied by electricity, kerosene or gas, according to the government’s 2011 Welfare Monitoring Survey, which didn’t even include statistics for the Ogaden, the country’s poorest and most isolated region. The use of electricity rises to 18 percent for Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. In rural areas, it’s even less – about four-tenths of one percent, the survey reports, with more than 87 percent of the country using firewood to cook (7.2 percent of rural people use leaves or dung cakes).
J.I. Eadie’s An Amharic Reader (1924), an anthology of articles, stories and documents, has a page of “eating house signboards” from around 1913, when Eadie, a British officer, served in Ethiopia.
“In Ato Kabbad’s house,” proclaimed one of the restaurant signs, “there is highly recommended food for Christians, both for fast and non-fast days.” (Ato is the Amharic word for “Mr.”) Said another: “In Ato Alamu’s house there is highly recommended pure food and teas.” Each of these places seems to go only by the name of its presumably well-known owner. One unnamed eatery boasts: “The most excellent bread shop in the whole of Addis Ababa, celebrated in the kingdom. There are also excellent drinks of every kind.” And for a place to rest after your meal: “In Ato Ayala’s hotel there is excellent food for Christians. Enter! Buy! There are dishes for fast and non-fast days.”
The book presents all of its entries in their original Amharic, with English translations following each one, and includes recipes for t’ej, talla, shamet (a barley and honey beverage), two different cultures’ preparations for delleh (a berbere sauce), and a promotion for Kola, an imported French wine-cola aperitif that only the elite would have enjoyed at finer Addis Ababa establishments.
The Eritrean scholar Abbebe Kifleyesus, in his essay “The Construction of Ethiopian National Cuisine,” observes that since at least the 1920s, Ethiopian towns have seen “the rise of small restaurants, food vendors at various corners of towns, push-cart food hawkers, sandwich and boiled egg sellers nearby entertainment pubs, and stalls selling spices and a variety of breads during market days.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, one way to dine away from home was at truck stops along the major roads in Ethiopia that led to Assab and Asmara, two cities in Eritrea. Many (but not all) were owned by Italians, who served their cuisine to Italian truckers and anyone passing.
My friend Menkir Tamrat, who grew up in Ethiopia, remembers “driving down on Sunday with my family to Kombolcha or Bati, from our home in Dessie, for the exact reason of wanting to have a different meal other than the daily injera b’wet. I understand that I was fortunate, and not everyone was so lucky, but I was only in third grade when I discovered spinach lasagna in Kombolcha and some incredible capreto alforno in Bati on one of those Sunday family picnic drives, just to name a few memorable meals.”
If you know where to look in Ethiopia, you may find your way to a “mother bet,” a place where people can get a filling and inexpensive meal. Bet is the Amharic word for house, so you can just imagine the home cookin’ that awaits you. And while Amharic has such words as enat, etye, emama, emete or imaye to say “mother” in various formal and colloquial ways, Ethiopians do call these establishments mother bets.
Meals cost less at a mother bet than at more formal restaurants, and some have operated for decades, proving a source of income for the women who operate them. There’s not much ambiance, but you won’t leave hungry.
The unusual name for these places, Menkir tells me, has to do with a sort of Westernization in Ethiopia.
“Calling someone mother or father to address folks older than you is very common in Addis, and now street vendors do it,” he says. “It’s sort of street hip to drop an English word or two with the Amharic. Some folks get upset when addressed this way and others don’t seem to mind. Some of the respect for elders is still there, it’s just that English is inserted to imply the person saying it is in the know. Addis Ababans take this sort of stuff to almost an art form, so the phrase is perfectly coined.”
A true restaurant culture only began to emerge in Ethiopia in the 1960s. Before that, Abbebe writes, “the choice of restaurants in, for example, Addis Ababa included a few family-owned restaurants serving national dishes. But by the early 1970s, Addis Ababa was sporting the sale of roasted beef (tibs) in and around the circle of the Soccer Stadium restaurants,” as well as boiled gastro-intestinal parts, kitfo, and quanta (beef jerky) in various restaurants.
“These restaurants and their flavoured dishes,” Abbebe says, “are not also unknown to low-rank customers. In other words, haute cuisine in Ethiopia is not only the prerogative of the rich.”
It’s fair to say that haute cuisine in Ethiopia no longer includes boiled gastro-intestinal parts. At the time, though, these restaurants flourished thanks to middle-class patrons, who also invited the opening of European-style restaurants at luxury hotels and soon as stand-alone businesses.
“Amidst the burgeoning industry of national food restaurants,” Abbebe observes, “interest in foreign foods thus seemed by the 1970s to have taken roots in the capital.” These places were especially important to single, middle-class men who had no maids or servants, or no time or talent for cooking.
In 1979, the Los Angeles Times reported the results of a study of 130 Ethiopian college students, construction workers and bank employees.
Heart attacks were rare then in Ethiopia because of the country’s traditional low-fat, high starch diet. Construction workers, who ate mostly “whole grain bread, vegetables, peas and tea,” had an average cholesterol level of 110. College students, adding fat from things like margarine and sausage to the traditional foods, came in at 160. The bankers ate more meat, butter and eggs, and their cholesterol was 180. No doubt the numbers for urban Ethiopians are higher now, a combination of more prosperity and more ways to eat badly. In fact, a 2012 report from Addis Ababa declared that “cardiovascular diseases were mainly considered the problem of the developed world just a few decades back. However, currently, reports suggest that it is becoming a primary health concern for middle- and low-income countries.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a special correspondent to Ethiopia in 1985, and in one of his reports, he said: “With few exceptions, Addis Ababa boasts more good restaurants than other cities on the African continent. Several good establishments serve Ethiopian, Chinese, Italian and other cuisines.” He noted that foreign visitors helped to make these places a success.
Solomon Addis Getahun, an Ethiopian-born American scholar, has written about the rise of a newer phenomenon in Ethiopian eating: the fast-food restaurant. At Addis Ababa places like Spot Bar, King Burger, Burger Queen (recently closed), Rand Fast Food, LA Burger and Macdona Pizzaria and Bar (with golden arches, but no “ld’s” in its name), patrons can buy burgers and fries, with pizza joints just around the corner. Or there’s Green View, an Italian restaurant and pizzaria (or “pizaria,” as its website says). In & Out, near the Ras Mekonnen Bridge, offers takeout service, and Big Burger provides fast-food catering. Or you can get KFC-style fried chicken at Chicken Hut, an Ethiopian chain.
These joints represent more than just a change in diet.
“In a country and society where the passage of time seems inconsequential,” Solomon writes, “and in a culture where socialization is the hallmark of a good individual, the introduction of ‘to go’ is an indication of a shift in attitude towards socialization and the concept of time: while time becomes no more constant, socialization also seems to have ceased serving as a standard for good character.”
And of course, meals “to go” can’t be shared from a common plate in the middle of a table surrounded by friends and family.
In 2008, a group of Ethiopian businessmen announced plans to build a series of fast food restaurants in Ethiopia that served the national cuisine. Mulu Mesob Foods sought to “prioritize hygiene and sanitation in our delivery,” founding partner Tekie Gebremedhin told Nazret, an online Ethiopian publication.
Price, too, is important. “Civil servants are suffering due to the spike in food prices,” Tekie said. “For instance, a plate of kay wot used to cost five birr, but now it has tripled. Our prices range from eight to 17 birr for a plate, depending on the type of food, but also includes a soft drink or bottled water.” The company is apparently the first of its kind in Ethiopia.
If there’s an upside to this Westernization of Ethiopian eating, Solomon suggests, it’s the advent of an urban gym culture. In traditional Ethiopia, being plump meant you could afford the food – usually beef – to get that way. (Weregenu Restaurant in Addis promotes itself, in English, as “the meat place.”) It was a status symbol, something to which poor Ethiopians aspired. But now a waistline is increasingly a sign of gluttony, and as a result, “fitness centers and health clubs are also mushrooming in Addis Ababa,” Solomon says, and some of them even air their exercise programs on national TV.
The patrons of these fast-food restaurants are largely (as expected) students and foreigners. The middle-class urban Ethiopian family is more likely to visit a restaurant with table service, just as their American counterparts do, and they have nearly as many choices.
And as Abbebe points out, Western chains like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and KFC “have not yet taken root in Addis Ababa.” Teen-agers mostly patronize the home-grown fast-food restaurants, and “for many Ethiopian traditionalists,” he writes, “these are treated more like exotic oddities than as substitutes for indigenous meals and snacks.”
Alem Eshetu, in his book Amharic for Foreign Beginners, notes that bigger restaurants in Ethiopia have menus, but at the smaller ones, your server will “enumerate the list of dishes” available that day. If service is a problem, which it just may be, then “to get the waiter’s attention, you can clap your hands softly. But don’t click your fingers which is considered impolite.”
This probably won’t be a problem at the restaurant in the Addis Ababa Hilton, where the haute cuisine is almost entirely foreign, albeit sometimes with an Ethiopian spin. The hotel has several dining rooms, from the Jacaranda Restaurant that serves its “signature lobster dish,” to the Kaffa House and its traditional Ethiopian entrées, like kitfo, shiro and the house specialty, zilzil tibs, a beef dish. The hotel also has a brick-fired pizzeria, a poolside bar that serves club sandwiches, and a lobby bar that serves both Ethiopian dishes and international cuisine.
So what’s on the menu at the Addis Hilton?
As an appetizer, you can get an “Ethiopian fresh fruit cocktail,” “Red Sea shrimp cocktail” or lightly smoked salmon. Soups include Bavarian lentil, French onion, or “Ethiopian pepper pot.”
You can follow that up with some delicious Wiener backhaendl (deep fried, breaded spring chicken), osso bucco cremolata, Swiss oberland pork chop (Ethiopian Christians and Moslems both shuns pork, so this is strictly for the tourists), Nile perch, prawns brochette Dahlak (named for an archipelago of Eritrean islands), or tournedos of sanga beef. Sanga is the Amharic word for steer, as well as an internationally known breed of cattle.
Not exactly “Ethiopian” food, although sometimes food with an Ethiopian take.
The Sheraton Addis provides similar options – and then some. In its Breezes restaurant you can order barbecue, and at Les Arcades the cuisine is French. Stagioni is typically Italian, Summerfields is international, and Shaheen is Indian. A few other eateries at the hotel offer snacks and lighter options. On weekends, the Sheraton’s Gaslight night club is open until 4 a.m., and it has a dress code.
By the turn of the new millennium, Addis Ababa’s reputation as a “restaurant town” had grown. Associated Press reporter John Leicester’s 2002 story about scenic Ethiopia declared: “One thing Addis Ababa does not lack is eateries, from simple cake and tea stores to posh restaurants with hilltop views of the city and varied menus. There are restaurants serving Italian, Thai, Chinese and other cuisines.”
Gebre Gelagay, who lives in Addis Ababa, has some good things to say about the variety of restaurants in the growing capital.
“Louvre is a great place, a taste of Paris, particularly for night dining,” Gebre tells me, “and great Italian dishes are the regular fare in Jordana’s Kitchen. There’s pasta galore at Mama Mia, and the top of the line is Gusto, the nearest thing to Castelli,” a well-known Italian restaurant in the Ethiopian capital. The proprietress of Jordana’s Kitchen even had a cooking show on Ethio-American TV for a while.
“We actually have quite a choice now with new openings and a few that have closed or evolved downwards,” Gebre adds. “For Habesha [Ethiopian] food, I find the new Kategna great, particularly the ambiance. Good fajitas and Sunday brunch can be had at Cozy Grill. For the best burgers in Africa, go to Sishu. There’s real steak at Dreamliner, pizza and everything else at MK’s, bratwurst and potato salad at Biergarten.”
Then there are the city’s fine Ethiopian restaurants. If you want true local cuisine, restaurants in Addis Ababa run the gamut. You can get good fresh spicy beef (kay wot) and t’ej at any number of homey little places – essentially, butcher shops that prepare beef dishes and serve them with t’ej. Men in white butcher smocks carve the meat from hanging sides of beef, prepare them to your specifications, and serve them with injera. This is the Ethiopian version of short-order cooking – fresh, filling, and made right before your eyes.
There are plenty of restaurants as well that serve full menus of the native cuisine, some renowned for their quality.
Agelgil is “one of Addis’s swankiest restaurants, where the businessmen, diplomats and the Italian-suit-wearing crowd come to feast,” The New York Times wrote. Part of it is American-style ersatz swank, with palm fronds in the bar and lounge. The restaurant itself is adorned with more traditional art, and the cuisine is all Ethiopian, including asa kitfo, a dish of chopped fried tilapia that the restaurant claims is unique among the city’s menus.
There are many kitfo betoch (“kitfo houses”) dotting the landscape, although Ethiopians in America caution against eating raw beef in Ethiopia. These restaurants will serve the dish lebleb – that is, lightly cooked – if you request it. “If you are too sensitive about hygienic measures with food,” wrote Joaquin Gonzalez Dorao, a Spanish blogger, “don’t get close to a butcher shop in Ethiopia. After visiting one of these shops you will undoubtedly become a vegetarian!!”
A newly opened restaurant on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, redefines the concept of “airplane food.” Gutema Guta, a young Ethiopian entrepreneur, bought a retired Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 jet and turned it into a restaurant that serves Ethiopian and European cuisine. It’s located in the community of Burayu, about seven miles from Addis, and can seat up to 100 people. In remodeling the airplane for its culinary use, Gutema installed new seats and a new bathroom. He converted the cockpit into a DJ booth.
If you have room for dessert (Western-style, of course), stop into any of the city’s numerous pastry shops. If you just want to drink, then select one of the myriad t’ej betoch (“t’ej houses”) that pock city and town alike. Wikimapia.org lets you search for them online and see their locations from the sky.
And if you’re really lucky, you may get an invitation to a zegubin, an informal gathering place that serves food and drink, without a license, and usually operates out of someone’s home. The term is an Amharic word that means “close the door,” and it can also refer to an exclusive bar or an after-hours bar.
For non-Ethiopian cuisine in Addis, you can choose from restaurants that serve Chinese, Indian, Thai, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, European, French, Mexican, Russian, Armenian, “Continental” and plenty of Italian. Well-off and educated Ethiopians will eat at these restaurants, and so will tourists. “In fact,” says Selamta, a web site promoting travel in Ethiopia, “it is possible to eat your way round the world without ever leaving Addis Ababa.”
Dodi Restaurant in Addis offers Sudanese cuisine, and it’s the first venture outside of Khartoum for the owners of the growing East African franchise. You can dine on fine Japanese food at Four Seasons, or on German specialties at Beer Garden Inn. Enya’s Mediterranean Kitchen opened on the Greek island of Milos in 2001, and in 2010, it’s Ethiopian-born owner/chef moved it to Addis.
Of course, there’s the cuisine of the world’s two most ubiquitous cultures: Chinese food at China Bar and Restaurant, as well as numerous Indian restaurants in the country’s capital. And there’s even a Canadian restaurant, Oh Canada, although when I go to Toronto, I usually eat Ethiopian and Korean, so I’m not sure what “Canadian cuisine” is.
Prices at the restaurants vary, but they’re always higher than their counterparts serving Ethiopian cuisine. You can get a meal served on injera at a traditional restaurant for a few dollars. At the higher-end non-Ethiopian restaurants, prices can begin at $25 for a dinner and go as high as $300. But if you order Italian cuisine in Addis, be forewarned: The sauce, like all the best Ethiopian food, may be spiced with berbere, so ask for it plain if you can’t stand the heat.
This is all what you might expect in a city of more than 2.1 million people. Outside of Addis, in smaller but still major tourist towns, be prepared to eat mostly – although not exclusively – Ethiopian food. These tourist destinations have pastry shops and juice bars as well as traditional restaurants that serve only Ethiopian cuisine. Most have pizza shops, and there’s always Italian. Many have regional specialties unique to the cultures of the area.
In Aksum, the place where Ethiopian cuisine began, you can choose from a variety of restaurants: the Abinet Hotel, the Yeha Hotel and Café Abyssinia serve native cuisine with some non-Ethiopian dishes, while Axumawit Pastery [sic], near the Abinet, is the place to go for dessert. For Ethiopian cuisine and a Western-style breakfast, try Tsega Café, and for European food, there’s the Remhai Hotel. Most of these places are located in the center of the city, which has about 48,000 residents.
You’ll find largely the same sort of options in Dire Dawa (population 398,000), Gondar (195,000), Dessie (169,000), Awassa (165,000), Jimma (159,000) Harar (122,000), and Lalibela (15,000), where the better hotels serve a mixture of Ethiopian and Western meals – three-course dinners of steak or roasted lamb when it’s not fasting season, and in some cases even when it is (for the tourists, not the locals). For smaller cities in Ethiopia, sometimes far from the capital, some of these cities have a few well-reviewed fine dining options.
From Dire Dawa’s upscale Ras Hotel to its quaint Harar Road Restaurant, or in Lalibela, from pricier hotels like the Lal or the Lasta, to smaller restaurants like Blue Nile, you’ll find good food in cities where tourists visit. Moslems consider Dire Dawa to be one of their holiest cities, and less than a decade ago, the Ethiopian government began to invest in developing the city to better accommodate the tourists who visit.
Some travelers worry about food safety when they visit far-away places, and the last thing you want on your trip to Ethiopia is a debilitating case of Mekelle Belly. So how safe is the food at restaurants in Ethiopia? A few scholars at Addis Ababa University have studied the sanitary practices of public eating establishments in some Ethiopian towns.
In a 2007 thesis that he researched in the town of Ambo, Dugassa Guteta writes that “sanitary conditions of many catering establishments were not satisfactory, therefore the probability of food contamination in these establishments were high.” Kinfe Zeru found a similar situation in Mekelle, where he conducted his research in 2005, concluding that “large numbers of mass catering establishments were found with poor sanitary conditions and major deficiencies of the premises. The knowledge and practice of food handlers were also found unsatisfactory.”
In shorter studies published in 1999, Shiferaw Teklemariam and Mulugeta Kibret found the same things in Awassa and Bahir Dar, respectively. Even in Addis Ababa, Getachew Fisseha found a need for more safety in handling food at public eating places.
Tesfa Tolla studied the broader issue of food safety regulation in Ethiopia. His 2010 thesis says that “although food establishments in Ethiopia are rapidly increasing and their role in the economy of the country is also considerable, the food quality regulatory system is not keeping pace with the contemporary food quality and safety assurance system.” He ends his thesis with recommendations to the government for how to improve food safety.
And by the way, if you’re desperate for pork while you’re in Ethiopia, you can find it, although not easily. In Ethiopia’s second-largest city, the multi-cultural (and ancient) Dire Dawa in the eastern Harar province of Ethiopia, Italian restaurants may serve pork. Ethiopian Catholics enjoy it, as do tourists.
Finally, in the most isolated areas of Ethiopia, like the southern Omo region, you’ll pretty much find only Ethiopian food and maybe some spaghetti. These are destinations for the bravest tourists, often for campers, and some guide books recommend that you plan to prepare your own food – if you can find a decent market to get your ingredients.
University of Pittsburgh
Istanbul, a Turkish restaurant in Addis Ababa:
Louvre, a French café in Addis Ababa: