Healthy Eating the Ethiopian Way

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IF YOU’RE INTO HEALTHY LIVING and Ethiopian food, then here’s a book – with a 22-day menu planner – for you.

In Tena Bamegageb, or “health by eating,” the Ethiopian nutritionist Tadesse Gesese recommends lots of fruits and vegetables on your road to long life, although he’s not averse to serving some of the standard dishes of Ethiopian cuisine, albeit the ones higher in fiber and lower in fat.

In the book’s dozen or so chapters, he discusses such topics as natural hygiene, the body cycle, metabolism, protein, fiber, fruits, and the importance of water in your diet. There’s a chart noting the relative amounts of vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D and E in a variety of foods, like lamb liver, chicory, spinach, sorrel, watercress and fish oil. He also explains what these vitamins do for the body.


Tadesse ends his book with 15 pages of mostly non-Ethiopian recipes, often for the meals he discusses in the book.

There’s a Mediterranean rice salad, a Parisian salad, an asparagus quiche, a vegetable juice cocktail, a “standard vegetable sandwich,” a fava bean tortilla, a “victory pie” (onion, celery, carrot, potato and spices), and an “energy salad” with spinach, cucumber, avocado, wheat, lentils and fava beans, all covered in a dressing made of onions, sunflower seeds and lemon juice.

Vegans tend to like Ethiopian cuisine because it has a lot of vegetable dishes made without milk or butter, and the menus in Tadesse’s book will suit such gourmands. His program does offer numerous beef entrées (no chicken or fish), but always with an option for a vegetarian entrée instead. This is a testament to the Ethiopian love of beef, although there are no raw meat dishes on the menu.

Tadesse presents his two daily menu planners under the heading “Transition Toward Healthy Eating,” and I’ve translated them here from the Amharic. One of the programs offers three meals a day for seven days, and the other presents three meals a day for 15 days. He doesn’t name the day of the week on which each plan should begin, so you might as well have a hearty Sunday dinner and embrace your healthier new life on Monday morning. (See the menus in Amharic.)

Tadesse recommends more fruit than you’ll find at Ethiopian restaurants or at a traditional Ethiopian meal. So what kind of fruits do people find and eat in Ethiopia?

The Ethiopian Horticulture Producers-Exporters Association says the country exports such fruits as bananas, oranges, avocados, mandarins, papayas, pineapples, guavas, grapefruits, limes, lemons, prunes (called prim in Ethiopia) and apples to neighboring countries and the Middle East. Researchers have found that many Ethiopians don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, in part because they’re expensive. But with horticulture expanding in Ethiopia, some researchers see this as a growth industry with a lot of potential. In fact, fruit marketing cooperatives have formed with help from European countries.

Fruits and vegetables for sale at a market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Fruits and vegetables for sale at a market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Now it’s time to look at the menus for Tadesse’s 21 days of eating well. But first, a few things to note:

♦ Very often, he instructs you to eat “vegetables” or “fruit” without specifying which ones, and only twice does he indicate how large your portions should be for any of his meals. So you have to choose your own fruits and vegetables – presumably some of the ones, noted above, that Ethiopia exports – and also your portion sizes. I guess his program is about eating good foods, and not necessarily about losing weight.

♦ Nor does Tadesse tell you what kind of beverage to have with your meal. An Ethiopian macro-biotic menu that I translated recommends lots of sugarless black tea. You might also enjoy some t’ej, the Ethiopian honey wine, or you might add more fruit juice to your afternoon and evening meals.

♦ Tadesse has a good number of meals where you can choose to have a boiled germ or cereal of some kind (called nefro in Amharic). He’ll often specify wheat germ, but sometimes he leaves it up to you to decide. To prepare nefro, you boil the grains or legumes in salty water. One Ethiopian friend tells me that his mother combines wheat, chick peas and sometimes corn to make her nefro.

♦ In each program, you’ll eat the same fruity breakfast every morning: He describes it for Day One and then simply says “like the first day” for every subsequent breakfast. The recurring breakfast for the seven-day plan is somewhat heartier and more diverse than the one for the 14-day plan.

Tadesse Gesese

Tadesse Gesese

♦ For many of the lunch and dinner menus – especially in the seven-day plan – Tadesse describes two meals and let’s you choose which one you want to prepare. It’s usually a choice between a beef dish and a vegetarian dish.

♦ Now and then, Tadesse suggests a large lunch and a much smaller dinner. That makes sense: better not to eat a heavy meal before bed. Still, it’s the American custom to have a larger meal at night. So I’ll suggest a few places where you might flip flop his meals.

♦ The book features a number of recipes named for Ethiopian cities: a Zala Anbesa soufflé, an Ada soufflé, an Awasa shorba (soup). I suspect he did this to honor the cities: that is, the recipes aren’t specialties of the towns after which they’re named.

♦ Tadesse slips some Italian dishes into the mix: pasta, lasagna, even pizza. Italy occupied Ethiopia for a few years in the 1930s, and Eritrea – formerly a part of Ethiopia, but now an independent country – was an Italian colony for half a century, before and during World War II. Certain elements of Italian cuisine crept onto the Ethiopian menu, and even more so the Eritrean menu. Ethiopians will sometimes spice their pasta with berbere to create a sort of East African arrabbiata sauce. I highly recommend it: In fact, you can use the hotter mitmita for even more zest.

♦ The book’s seven-day plan allows you to eat injera at some meals and gives you a few beef options. Not so in the two-week plan: no injera, no meat of any kind.

OK, then. Let’s get on to the menus.

The One-Week Program

For your seven days of the same breakfast, Tadesse prescribes a juice of raw mixed fruits – your choice, it seems, and you’ve got to make the juice fresh, so you might as well mix it up and use different fruits every day. You’re to drink up to 400 grams of it (that’s about 14 ounces). He adds that if you’re still hungry, you can have a banana, but you should only eat fruit until lunch. (Special thanks to my friend Menkir Tamrat for translating this meal. Without him, we’d all have gone hungry for seven mornings.)

For lunch on Day One, you can choose between collard greens mixed with beef and a little bit of injera, or a spicy stew of yellow peas (kik wot). Add some boiled carrots and green beans to either choice. For dinner this first day, it’s either vegetable soup or rice mixed with vegetables.

Tadesse's illustration of the food chain

Tadesse’s illustration of the food chain

For Day Two, enjoy some bozena shiro – that is, beef mixed with spiced pea powder – and injera, plus a spicy vegetable stew with injera. There’s no “or” option here, and that’s a lot of food, so you might pick one or the other. The veggie stew, atkilt wot, traditionally consists of green beans, carrots and potatoes stewed in a sauce made of thoroughly cooked chopped onion and berbere to make it spicy. For dinner, it’s “any soup” – the recipes at the end of the book offer preparations for many kinds – and a salad. (Suggestion: You may want to flip flop these meals, having the soup and salad for lunch, and the heartier meal for dinner.)

On to Day Three, where lunch will be either stir fried beef (siga tibs) with vegetables or, tossing in a bit of Western culture, veggie lasagna. For dinner, you’d better be hungry: It’s a soup (apparently, your choice), a wheat germ salad, plus pasta with tomato sauce (no “or” here, so it looks like Tadesse is being generous with the entrées).

Day Four bring more Western flare if you so choose: For lunch, you’ll have either a veggie pizza or traditional Ethiopian shiro wot with injera. Dinner is either vegetable soup or a broth of vegetables mixed with meaty bones trimmed of their fat (y’atkilt seb yala qeqel). This second dish sounds a bit like beef stew with some bones to suck on.

On Day Five, for lunch, it’s either injera with minchet abish, a dish of chopped beef stewed with fenugreek (abish) and other spices, or vegetable soup. For dinner, once again, you can choose between “any soup” or warm boiled germ using the grain of your choice.

It’s Day Six – Saturday, let’s say – and you’ll lunch on beef soup and broth or sweet potatoes with vegetables. I’d go with the sweet potatoes, which adds something a little different to the week. Dinner is our old favorite veggie soup, or instead, you can have a salad and a dish of grains, boiled or roasted (your choice). Here again, you may want to flip flop these meals, and because it’s Saturday night, enjoy your evening meal with some t’ej.

Finally, for Sunday lunch, there’s a vegetable sandwich and the popular misir wot (spicy lentil stew) with injera. You’ll end the week of meals with a dinner of vegetable soup, or with pasta in vegetable sauce and a salad of germ with the grain of your choice. Personally, I’d just go with the pasta and skip the germ.

The Two-Week Program

Tadesse doesn’t muster up a lot of culinary creative energy for breakfast: It’s the same meal for 14 days, and it’s not nearly as elaborate as your seven-day breakfast routine: This time, it’s simply “fruit and fruit juice” – no particular amount, no particular fruits. You can enjoy your favorites, but don’t over do it. Some fruits have lots of sugar – and the calories that go with it.

Tadesse has no fruit juice recipes at the end of the book, but he has an entry for a “vegetable juice cocktail” made with carrots, celery, beets, tomatoes, green peppers and parsley – sort of like the Ethiopian V-8. So let’s just call this an E-6.

The book's illustration of the food pyramids

The book’s illustration of the food pyramids

Here, then, is what you’ll eat for the rest of the week. Imagine that this routine begins right after the seven-day plan, so the first day is a Monday. Where there’s dressing on a salad, Tadesse’s recipe is a mélange of olive oil, garlic, salt and lemon juice.

On Day One, for lunch, begin the meal with either fresh fruit juice or carrot juice, 150 to 250 grams of it (one of the rare occasions where Tadesse specifies a quantity of food). After that, you’ll have a raw vegetable salad with dressing. He refers to the dressing as laslasa, an Amharic word that can mean “smooth” or can refer to a soft drink (i.e., soda pop). I assume he means the dressing, noted above, for which he has a recipe later in the book. Dinner is a soup of collard greens and a Zala Anbesa pasta made with lemon juice, onion, black pepper, broccoli and spices.

Zala Anbesa is a town on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea that’s near the city of Badme, whose disputed ownership led the two countries to war in 1998. An international court has ruled that Eritrea rightfully owns Badme, although Ethiopia still occupies it. Its proximity to Eritrea, a former Italian colony, could explain why it has an eponymous pasta dish.

For lunch on Day Two, it’s vegetable lasagna or a selection of raw fruits and vegetables (as always, your choice, no quantity specified). Dinner is a bit odd: a raw vegetable juice “cocktail” plus one papaya and one pineapple. So I’d go with the lasagna for lunch – and maybe save some leftovers for dinner.

The entries for Day Three are concise: Lunch is “victory pie,” which, as noted above, is a mix of onion, celery, carrot, potato and spices; dinner is Awasa soup, a blend of red onions, garlic, potatoes, celery, oregano, green peppers, fava beans, cream, butter, and some black pepper to spice it up. (Awasa is a well-known Ethiopian city south of Addis Ababa, the capital.)

Same brevity for Day Four: for lunch, a juice of either fresh fruit or raw vegetables, or an “energy” salad (lettuce, spinach, cucumber, tomato, lentils or beans, avocado, sunflower seeds and more); and for dinner, after a lunch with so much stuff in your salad, it’s a simple vegetable soup.

It’s Day Five – Friday, let’s say – and the meals get a little more diverse. Lunch will be either raw vegetables or a veggie pizza (need I suggest which one to choose); and for dinner, get ready to enjoy a delicious asparagus quiche. If you don’t know how to make one, the recipe section in the back of the book will tell you. (Hint: It contains asparagus and eggs.)

An illustration of the "food digestion system"

An illustration of the “food digestion system”

Day Six (Saturday) lunch reverts back to some fresh fruit and a classic Caesar salad. That’s not too filling, so for dinner, it’s a hearty “harvest” soup (azmara shorba), with lots of vegetables: carrots, collard greens, garlic, cabbage, zucchini, potatoes, spices – and banana.

To end the first week of the two-week program, Day Seven’s lunch will be fresh fruit and carrot juice, or another “victory” pie like we have for lunch four days ago. Dinner is vegetable juice and a salad, or a meal of boiled grains plus a germ salad (again with the grains of your choice, it seems).

Your second week (Day Eight) brings a lunch consisting of a very fancy-sounding celery rémoulade (sort of like tartar sauce), and a dinner of asparagus soup and salad. On Day Nine, lunch is a tortilla made with fava beans, and dinner is vegetable broth with mayonnaise (perhaps the least appetizing entry of the entire program).

It’s Day 10, and we have something new: carrot hash browns, which I assume is a variation of traditional hash browns made with shredded potatoes. For dinner, it’s another round of “harvest” soup, which we just had on Day Six. On to Day 11: Let’s lunch on a Parisian salad (lettuce, radicchio, carrots) with asparagus, and then dine on boiled grains plus a germ salad (choose your own grains).

As we approach the end of Tadesse’s plans, lunch on Day 12 is something a little different: a vegetable sandwich with cucumber and celery. And for dinner, a real treat: mushroom soup (inguday shorba). The spicy traditional Ethiopian dish inguday wot (spicy mushrooms) is delicious.

Day 13 would be our presumed Saturday, with a lunch of Mediterranean rice salad, then a dinner of wheat germ and warm boiled grains and salad. Finally, we’ll end the program on Sunday, Day 14, with a lunch of Ada soufflé, a dish named for an Ethiopian city, and made with niter kibe (spiced butter), wheat flour, red onions, garlic, awaze (a red pepper sauce), chick peas, milk, black pepper and dry cheese. (Some of these ingredients are for the sauce.) You’ll end the week with a veggie pizza for dinner.

But wait! Tadesse throws in one extra day: For lunch on Day 15, it’s “amaretch” rice with vegetables (the quotation marks on “amaretch” are Tadesse’s), and for dinner, it’s a New York “Gudwich” (this time the quotation marks are mine). The latter is an extravaganza of broccoli, collard greens, carrots, red cabbage, avocados, parsley and red onions on either a bean tortilla or a kita, which is like an Ethiopian pizza shell. As for the former, I can’t find a recipe for “amaretch” in Tadesse’s book, but the name comes from a word that means “select” or “premium quality.” So whatever kind of rice and vegetables are special, that’s what you should eat.

So there it is: 22 days of healthy eating in an Ethiopian context, with lots of fruits and vegetables. We often hear that Ethiopian cuisine is “healthy,” and that’s true, especially if you stick to ye’t’som megeb – that is, fasting food, those all-vegetarian meals eaten in conjunction with Ethiopian Orthodox Christian holy days (and other times as well, of course). The meat dishes have lots of butter, and meat has cholesterol, although Ethiopian meat tends to be very lean.

The most significant thing missing here is the copious amounts of injera you’ll consume eating traditional Ethiopian meals: The seven-day plan includes some, but the 15-day plan does not. So if you can live without injera two or three times a day, then give Tadesse’s menu a try.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Here’s a look at some fruit tree seedlings in Ethiopia:


Here’s an “Ethiopian” salad that might fit nicely into Tadesse’s menu:

Ethiopia’s Potent Potables

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Oh, OK, it’s a trick question: That is how you say it. The word letenachin means “to our health,” and it’s the Amharic equivalent of skål, prost, salud, auguryo, zivjeli, sláinte, kippis, noroc and на здоровье. Or, in English, “Cheers!” – or maybe even, “Here’s mud in your eye.”

But what should you put in your glass when you raise it to make an Ethiopian toast?

Ethiopians have a few traditional alcohol drinks that go back thousands of years, and different cultures across Ethiopia use fermented honey and grains in different ways to create the diverse culture’s potent potables. There’s also a thriving commercial alcohol industry that makes and exports beer, wine and liquor.

Food and t'ej in Ethiopia

Food and t’ej in Ethiopia

The drink most widely known around the world is t’ej, the ancient mead, and perhaps the most ubiquitous drink in Ethiopia itself is t’alla, a traditional beer. Most people make these at home, but a few wineries in Ethiopia – and many around the world, especially in the United States – make t’ej. I know of no U.S. company that makes t’alla, perhaps because it’s much more of an acquired taste, although I’ve visited a few restaurants that make their own.

There are virtually no restrictions on the sale or consumption of alcohol in Ethiopia, according to the World Health Organization. You need no license to make it, no license to sell it, and you can drink it almost anywhere and any time. You can advertise it freely, too, although the government does restrict ads for spirits – but not wine and beer – on TV and radio.

And if you’re lucky, your potent potable will give you betam teru moqta, or “very good heat” – that is, a nice buzz.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common homemade alcoholic drinks in Ethiopia, followed by a look at commercially made wines, beers and liquors. Many of these beverages have been widely studied by Ethiopian scientists, and these notes merely offer an introduction.

T’ej. Nobody can document for certain when Ethiopians began to make t’ej. We know that gesho, the species of buckthorn that provokes fermentation and adds flavor, is native to Ethiopia, and that excavations at Aksum – the ancient culture of northern Ethiopia and southern Eritrea – have found remnants of gesho and writing that mentions honey wine in the third century A.D. This confirms that t’ej is at least nearly 2,000 years old. This earliest written record of t’ej was found in 1962 by the Dutch archaeologist A.J. Drewes when he translated some writing in stone, which he dates to the middle of the third century A.D.

Accounts from as early as the 16th Century, when European exploration of Ethiopia began in earnest, copiously document the presence of this special honey wine. These historic chronicles offer many sweet tidbits about t’ej: its production and consumption, and its place in Ethiopian society. Once a drink of emperors and kings, it’s now enjoyed by anyone who can afford the honey and gesho to make it. Some cultures in Ethiopia even use t’ej as a sort of sacramental wine in their religious practices, with the task of making it falling on a young man in the community.

Bereles for sale at a Virginia market

Bereles for sale at a Virginia market

T’ej is easy to make at home, and I’ve created a tutorial about how to do it. I’ve also created a separate website with a lot more information about t’ej. In Ethiopia, you’ll often drink t’ej at a t’ej bet (“house”), a bar that specializes in the popular drink.

Ethiopians drink t’ej from a berele, a flask-like vessel with a round bottom and a long neck with a hole at the top. This allows you to put your thumb over the hole when you’re not drinking to keep insects from getting into your sweet liquid. The berele seems to be only several hundred years old in the culture, and before that, Ethiopians drank from cow horns. Some isolated cultures in Ethiopia still do this today.

And by the way, “honey wine” has many different names in the 90 or so languages spoken across Ethiopia. T’ej is merely the name in Amharic: It’s mes in Tigrinya and daadii in Afaan Oromo. Many of these meads are made the same way, but from culture to culture, you may find gesho replaced by different fermenting and flavoring agents. For example, the Majangir people call their honey wine ogool and use the bark of the mange tree rather than gesho.

T’alla. This is the Amharic name for homemade Ethiopian beer, called farsoo in Afaan Oromo and sawa (or suwa) in Tigrinya. But it’s not like any beer you’re likely to find in America, even the stuff you might make in your basement.

A t'alla bet in Ethiopia

A t’alla bet in Ethiopia

You make t’alla by blending water with barley flour, wheat “berries” (whole wheat kernels), and gesho leaves or powder, as opposed to the gesho sticks and branches used for t’ej. You put the gesho into water for several days, put the wheat berries into a different container of water for several days and let them sprout, bake the sprouting berries until they get a bit crispy, add the wheat berries to the water with the gesho, turn the barley flour into a batter, bake it until it begins to dry a little, crumble it up, add it to the other stuff in the liquid, and then, hope it ferments and turns into beer – and not into a big horrible sopping mess, as it has more often than not for me.

In his 1991 study of t’alla, the Ethiopian researcher Samuel Sahla says that “every housewife has her own version of the recipe.” Women will clean the fermentation vats with the leaves of the grawa plant (Vernonia amygdalina) and smoke the vats with weira (the wood of olive trees, Ofee europaea). Fermentation happens in several stages, Samuel found, taking a new direction each time you add more ingredients, and finally reaching an alcohol content of between 2 and 8 percent. “The color of t’alla is determined by the housewife preparing it,” he writes, and the process takes between five and 15 days.

Making t’alla is almost exclusively the responsibility of women in Ethiopian homes and villages. An Ethiopian woman can sometimes make income from selling her t’alla and even own and operate a t’alla bet (just like the t’ej bet, only for t’alla). A pole with a can or other object on top indicates the presence of such a place (see photo above). Kerari is a milder type of t’alla, made by adding water at the end of the fermentation process. Ethiopians might let their children drink kerari before they’re old enough for the stronger stuff.

Amene Afework wrote a 2011 dissertation on t’alla and katikala (which we’ll get to in a moment) at Addis Ababa University. “These alcoholic drinks were previously prepared for home-based drinks and to colorfully celebrate cultural holidays,” he writes, “but the current economic hardship together with other factors forced women to use it as a commercial item. Most of the operators are in the productive age groups, illiterate, migrants and were housewives.” They go into this line of work, he found, because of economic need, divorce, lack of education and widowhood.

Making t'alla in Ethiopia (drawing and photograph)

Making t’alla in Ethiopia (drawing and photograph)

The different cultures of Ethiopia all have their own names for their fermented beer-like beverages, many of which resemble t’alla with their thick, foamy, beer-like qualities. The alcohol content of these drinks is often very low, sometimes only fermenting overnight, and some cultures use them as food because of the grains that go into making them.

Borde, for example, is “an opaque, effervescent, whitish-grey to brown-colored beverage with a thick consistency and sweet-sour taste,” writes the researcher Kebede Abegaz, describing what sounds a lot like t’alla, as does his recipe, which includes a variety of grains, as well as grawa and weira. Shamita, too, begins with roasted barley, some linseed oil, a few spices and water. The people of the Begemder region call their beer-like drink korefe.

Katikala. You might call this the Ethiopian vodka: It’s clear, and it goes well with a mixer – although Ethiopians will happily drink it straight up. It’s made with largely the same ingredients as t’alla: water, gesho, germinated barley or wheat berries, and a meal or batter of some type of grain. But unlike t’alla, this is distilled, so it’s essentially a grain alcohol.

“In the villages,” wrote the scholar Ruth Selinus in 1971, “distillation is carried out with primitive equipment made of gourds and wood. Katikala is brewed in rural and semi-urban areas and is used by more commonly by farmers and semi-urban dwellers than by people who live in the cities. In cities, those who drink katikala are predominantly lower-class people or those who have become dependent upon alcohol and cannot afford to buy industrially produced alcohol.”

Endalew Addis wrote a 2007 dissertation on katikala in Ethiopia, finding that “katikala production and consumption has both benefits and problems. Some of the benefits are income generating and employment creation. On the other hand, katikala production has problems such as health problems mainly due to indoor air pollution, and poor educational performance of students or school drop out because of time competition and high labor demand. It was also found that katikala consumption has benefits to colorfully celebrate cultural festivals, and problems such as poverty, unemployment, family disorganization, and crimes and accidents.”

Traditional katikala production in Ethiopia, and modern production in Germany

Traditional katikala production in Ethiopia, and modern production in Germany

Other studies have found that distilling katikala in traditional ways, using wood-fueled stoves, exposes both people and the environment to harmful byproducts. Using wood to make katikala also contributes to the ongoing depletion of Ethiopian forests.

Commercial distilleries in Ethiopia don’t make katikala, so good luck finding any outside of Ethiopia – unless you live in Germany. Wilhelmine Stordiau of Frankfurt makes three varieties of Begena Tedj, which she sells in Europe and Canada, and she recently brought a katikala to market, the first such product I can find in the western world. Her katilaka is 42 percent alcohol, thus 84 proof.

Araqe. Once again we have an alcohol made with water, grains and gesho leaf or powder (just like the gesho in t’alla). But with araqe, you add various flavoring agents, and you end up with, more or less, an Ethiopian ouzo. In fact, most Ethiopians will use the name katikala and araqe interchangeable. The difference is the flavoring – and also the fact that several distilleries bottle araqe for commercial sale. With katikala, it’s always homebrew. Put another way: All araqe is katikala, but not all katikala is araqe.

Commercial areqe from Ethiopia

Commercial araqe from Ethiopia

The scholar Jon Abbink, in the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, says that “the distillation process, yielding strong liquors like areqe, is a recent innovation, probably imported from abroad, or copied from resident Greeks or Armenians, during Menilek II’s reign.” That put it around the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yeraswork Admassie and Yezana Amdework confirm this, and much more, in their 2010 book The Aräqe Dilemma, which explores the production, marketing and consumption of traditional distilled alcohol in Ethiopia. They say that araqe “is a ubiquitous feature of present-day Ethiopian society” and “more than the alcoholic drink of choice for people living in rural and small towns of Ethiopia [because] its popularity is on the rise even in the big towns and cities.”

Fresh from the home distillery, araqe is “pure spirit with a neutral taste and clear, colorless appearance,” the authors say. “Only when laced with flavoring and coloring compounds such as gibt’o, kosso flower and honey – before, during or after distillation – does it acquire a variety of positive tastes.” Gibt’o is the Amharic word for a flowering plant we call the white lupin, and kosso is a leaf that Ethiopians chew to kill tapeworms. Ethiopians roast the gibt’o seeds to remove the bitterness and then use them to flavor their araqe. They also might roast the gibt’o and eat them as a snack with alcoholic drinks, and some cultures even use gibt’o to make shiro. At restaurants where they serve araqe, you might find it flavored with coffee, milk, mint or lemon, among other things.

The alcohol content of araqe differs, of course, based upon who makes it and how long the maker lets it ferment and distill. It’s often around 30 percent, but some people will distill their araqe a second time, producing dagim araqe. It has a higher alcohol content, sometimes as high as 50 percent or more.

Although Ethiopians make araqe in traditional ways at home, some commercial distilleries have brought it to market. Pictured above, on the right, is a bottle of a brand from the Ethiopian manufacturer National Alcohol and Liquor Factory: In English, the bottle calls it “Double Ouzo,” but the Amharic above that says “double araqe.” The liquor has the aroma of anise, which is used to flavor traditional ouzo, but the bottle doesn’t list the liquor’s flavoring agents. It’s 43 percent alcohol, thus 86 proof. You can click the image of the bottle to get a closer look: The label pictures two moose, and in Ethiopia, this araqe is nicknamed enat ena lij – that is, “mother and child.” National makes about a dozen kinds of alcohol – including gin, brandy, and flavored liquors – and recently expanded its nearly century-old Addis Ababa facility.

Ethiopian companies make many beers and wines that they export around the world.

Ethiopian companies make many beers and wines that they export around the world.

Ethiopian Wines, Beers and Liquors. When you visit an Ethiopian restaurant in America, you can usually enjoy your meal with a variety of Ethiopian-made chabsi (alcohol). The country now exports a variety of beers, wines and liquor, and a growing number of Ethiopian-American businessmen – on the east coast, west cost and Midwest – distribute these products nationwide.

Ethiopian beers have become increasingly available in restaurants around the country. The brands you’ll find are Harar, Meta, Bedele, St. George, St. George Amber, Castel, Bati, Hakim Stout and Dashen. Occasionally you’ll also find Addis, an American-made brew that presents itself as “genuine Ethiopian-style lager beer.”

But Ethiopian beers taste pretty much like their American commercial counterparts – which, of course, tend to taste like one another. Hakim Stout is a dark ale – a “peculiar,” as the British call it – and the others are solid lagers. Personally, I like Dashen, which has a hint of sweetness to it that the others don’t have.

Several companies, all very competitive these days, dominate Ethiopia’s beer market.

Desta makes a variety of liquors sold in Ethiopia

Desta makes a variety of liquors sold in Ethiopia

BGI Ethiopia owns the St. George (4.5 percent alcohol by volume), Castel (5 percent abv) and Bati (4.5 percent abv) brands, so it can trace its origins (before many corporate mergers) back to 1922, when St. George appeared. Meta Abo Brewery, founded in 1963, and now owned by the British company Diageo (which makes Johnnie Walker and Captain Morgan), produces the well-established Meta (5 percent abv), on the market since 1967.

Harar Brewery, launched in 1984, and now owned by Heineken, makes Harar (4.25 percent abv), Hakim Stout (5.8 percent abv), and the non-alcoholic Harar Sofi. Bedele Brewery has made Bedele and Bedele Special (4.25 to 4.5 percent abv) since its founding in 1993. The country’s youngest beer, Dashen (4.5 percent abv), arrived in 2000, and it’s made in Gondar, the country’s capital for more than 200 years until the mid-19th Century. Eritrean restaurants in America often serve Asmara (5 percent ABV), a beer made in its namesake Eritrean capital since 1939, although it began its life as Melotti, named for its Italian colonial founder. New Eritrea Restaurant in San Francisco has promotional cards under its glass tabletops that boast: “We proudly serve the Eritrean King of Beers.”

BGI and its products hold 42 percent of the market share, according to a recent sector report, with the newest brewer, Dashen, coming in second at 21 percent. “Despite a sharp increase in recent years,” the report says, “per capita beer consumption in Ethiopia is still only a fraction of the level seen in neighboring African countries.” The average is four liters per person, compared with 59 liters per person in South Africa. This is no doubt because Ethiopians have such a long tradition of making and drinking homemade beverages like t’ej and t’alla. Still, the growth of the Ethiopian beer industry has been good for barley farmers, who have seen prices rise for their harvests.

As for who drinks these beers here in America, restaurant owners tell me that it’s mostly non-Ethiopians who want the full experience when they dine out. They cite a few reasons for this. Ethiopian-Americans who drink beer in restaurants can be snobbish about drinking Ethiopian beer because they feel they know it too well. “When you have gold,” Denekew Getahun, who distributes Ethiopian beer from Chicago, told me, “you tend to think it’s silver or brass.”

Nega Selassie, the co-owner of NTS Enterprises in Oakland, Calif., guesses that Americans down nine out of 10 bottles of Ethiopian brew sold in U.S restaurants. Ethiopians are more likely to choose Heineken or Guinness, and Nega thinks he knows why. “They feel proud to drink foreign beer,” he says. “It’s the mentality.”

Liquors made by National,  an Ethiopian company

Liquors made by National,
an Ethiopian company

The Ethiopian commercial wine industry is – at least for now – pretty much all in the hands of Awash Wineries, a company founded in 1943 and owned by the government for many years until it went private in 2013. The new owners are two companies: Blue Nile, which is Ethiopian, and 8 Miles, a private European investment firm that focuses on helping Africa and whose chairman of the board is the charitable musician Bob Geldof.

Awash makes most of the Ethiopian wines you’ll find in restaurants around the U.S.: the dry red wine Gouder, probably the best bet for American palates; the semi-dry (or semi-sweet) reds, Dukam and Axumit; and two white wines, the dry Awash Crystal and the medium dry Kemila. They’re all around 11.5 percent alcohol.

In 2008, the French company Castel bought some land south of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, imported vines from Bordeaux, and began an initiative to produce some new brands of Ethiopian-made wines. The company uses Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes for its red wines and Chardonnay for white wines.

Castel began marketing two lines of wine this year: Rift Valley Cuvee and Acacia Cuvee Prestige. The Rift Valley line will offer a Syrah, a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay. The Acacia line will offer a dry red, a medium sweet red and a medium sweet white. The company plans to export about half of its product and to sell the rest domestically.

At least two brands of commercial t’ej exist today in Ethiopia: Nigest (“Queen”) Honey Wine, made by Awash Winery; and Tizeta (“Memory”) Tej, produced by an Ethiopian man who lived in Canada and returned home to begin his winemaking enterprise. Tizeta Tej isn’t available in America. Nigest Honey Wine is, distributed on the east coast by an Ethiopian-American businessman in the Washington, D.C., area. But Americans sometimes find its taste to be too sharp, so he can’t get too many Ethiopian restaurants to carry it.

Castel's new line of Ethiopian-made wines

Castel’s new line of Ethiopian-made wines

Zerihun Bekele of Alem Ethiopian Village, a restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisc., confirms this: He once sold Nigest Honey Wine but doesn’t any more because his customers favor the American-made brands of t’ej that he also sells (he lists Enat, made at a California winery, on the menu).

At least a dozen companies – among them National, Desta and Balezaf – make a wide selection of hard liquors in Ethiopia, although production is sometimes hampered by shortages of ingredients. Finding these alcohols in America is next to impossible, even at Ethiopian restaurants, where beer and wine imports from Ethiopia dominate the menu. From time to time, especially at Eritrean restaurants, you’ll find Zibib, an Eritrean-made ouzo that tastes like National’s araqe.

One of the more unusual enterprises is Abyssinia Vodka, made and sold in Ethiopia for a number of years, and now on the verge of export to America. There’s nothing especially “Ethiopian” about it, and Henok Yitbarek, the company’s owner in Ethiopia, says it’s based on a Russian recipe.

“According to history,” the website explains, “Ethiopia’s legendary kings enjoyed homemade traditional vodka since the Aksumite civilization, and the wise monks used it for medical purposes.” The modern product dates back decades, but the distillers began selling its brand commercially in 1996. The company claims it’s “100% hangover free,” which is pretty good, considering it’s 80 proof.

Henok is the son of Yitbarek Alemu, an Ethiopian chemist who created the recipe for the Meskerem beverage company in Ethiopia. The vodka company’s website says that Henok acquired ownership of Abyssinia vodka after buying the recipe from Meskerem and “adding the original family recipe.”

Henok tells me that he’s working with an Ethiopian-American in Washington, D.C., to begin selling the vodka in the U.S.

T’ej in America. Although I recommend making your own t’ej to enjoy with your Ethiopian meal in America, I know that’s not always practical and often impossible. So it’s a good thing that you can almost always find American-made winery t’ej at Ethiopian restaurants across the country.

Araya Yibrehu co-owned Sheba, New York’s first Ethiopian restaurant, which opened in 1979, and more than a decade later, he pioneered the making of commercial t’ej in America. Born and raised in Ethiopia, he now owns Heritage Winery, located in New York City, and makes Axum Tej, along with several other varieties that you can buy in New York, Washington and other east coast cities.

Newer to the scene is Ayele Solomon, who just launched a honey wine called Bee d’Vine. Ayele doesn’t call it t’ej on the label, but he’s a native of Ethiopia (now a Californian), and the heart of his wine is Ethiopian. Also new, but on the east coast, is the “sparking honey brew” made by Lost Tribes. The company created its t’ej to honor and preserve the culture of the Beta Israel – that is, the Jews of Ethiopia, most of whom have emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel in the past 25 years. Both of these companies have charitable elements: Bee D’vine gives a share of its profits to help Ethiopians buy modern beehives, and Lost Tribes owns a 10-acre farm in Israel that will host sustainable ecological development and a brewery.

Some brands of t'ej made in America

Some brands of t’ej made in America

There’s also Seifu’s Tej, created by Seifu Lessanework for his Blue Nile restaurants in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich., and now sold nationwide; Enat Tej, made by a California man, and based on the recipe of his Ethiopian mother-in-law (enat is Amharic for mother); Sheba Tej, made by Brotherhood Winery in upstate New York; Regal Tej, made by Easley Winery in Indiana; Yamatt Tej, made in Oakland, Calif., by Menkir Tamrat; and several others. In Europe, you can buy Begena Tedj in many countries, or a t’ej made in Sweden but sold only in that country. A few other restaurants around Europe make and label their own t’ej as well.

Some restaurants in America will make their own homebrew, although always under the radar of state liquor laws that forbid it without a special license (if the state permits the sale of homebrew at all). These laws usually says you can’t sell homemade alcohol, and I’ve encountered a few restaurant owners who offer a glass for free to regular customers. I’ve seen many more that flout the law and sell it anyway. Sometimes it’s quite good, and sometimes it’s too sweet, which usually means it’s also too low in alcohol content. But it does give you a more authentic t’ej experience than when you drink the more refined t’ej – much of tasty in its own right, and always at least 12 percent alcohol – made by a winery.


IF THERE’S AN AMHARIC WORD FOR “COCKTAIL,” then nobody seems to know what it is. At least, nobody I know: I’ve asked some Ethiopian friends, and they tell me there’s no such word.

That’s probably because Ethiopians in Africa take their alcohol straight up. But Ethiopians of the diaspora own businesses that sell food and alcohol, and some of them have improvised, creating Ethiopian-themed cocktails as an additional revenue stream.

For example, the website for Begena Tedj has a page of a dozen recipes for cocktails that Stordiau has created and that you can make with her t’ej and katikala. The Arenguada (Amharic for “green”) blends t’ej, katikala and a sweet green pepper as “an extravagant decoration that keeps flies away.” A Bitcha (“yellow”) substitutes a yellow pepper for a green one and adds a few strawberries. The Neb (“bee”) blends the potables with grapefruit and orange juices. To make an Ethio Jam, mix katikala, t’ej and cane sugar.

Lost Tribes Brew created a sparkling t’ej in 2014, and on its website, you’ll find recipes for nearly a dozen cocktails made with t’ej (I suspect any brand will do). On the company’s t’ej cocktail page, click each image to see the ingredients and a how-two video for each one.

A Balezaf  brand liquor made in Ethiopia

A Balezaf brand liquor made in Ethiopia

At Demera, a popular Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, the menu lists four house cocktails with Ethiopian themes. An Addis Ababa is a margarita that adds touches of cardamom and ginger, two common spices in Ethiopian cuisine. The Koshasha (“filthy”) is Demera’s take on the dirty martini, a blend of vodka, olive juice and “a fiery kiss of awazi sauce” – that is, a spicy red pepper sauce, more properly spelled awaze, made with berbere. It’s “hot to trott,” the orthographically challenged menu promises. And you don’t want to miss out on the Kaffe, made with coffee liqueur, Bailey’s Irish Cream “and our own brewed coffee.” It’s “dessert in a glass” from “the birthplace of the coffee bean.”

At Blue Nile in Minneapolis, a Crocodile Smile Martini is “not for the weak of tongue,” the menu says. It’s a “hot, hot, hot” blend of vodka spiced with berbere. There’s also a berbere version of the Bloody Mary.

You’ll find lots of Ethiopian-inspired cocktails at Sheba Piano Lounge in San Francisco. They go by names like Red Sea, Sheba Combo, Selassie, Abyssinia Storm, Harrar Cooler, Makeda Martini and Addis Champagne Cocktail. Some are named for cities in Ethiopia, some for historic figures, and the “Soloman’s Julep” for King Solomon, whom Ethiopian lore tells us had a child with Makeda – the Queen of Sheba. The wise old king’s drink consists of Jim Beam, fresh mint, sugar and soda.

Nunu’s, an Ethiopian fusion restaurant in Toronto, serves a t’ej cocktail, the owner’s “ode to Ethiopian honey wine,” the menu says. It’s caramelized honey and pear purée, cinnamon, nutmeg, gesho, lime and rum. They can’t use homemade t’ej in the drink because that would be illegal, but Nunu makes t’ej and will sometimes share it for free with customers just to give them a taste. The restaurant also sells Ketsela Giorgis, a craft beer on tap made by Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto. It’s a stout made from the recipe that Nunu Ketsela’s mother used when she ran a big establishment in Nazareth, Ethiopia, that made t’ej and t’alla.

The website has a recipe for an Ethiopian Camel Basher – one part orange juice, one part vodka, and a dash of grenadine syrup – but there’s nothing particularly Ethiopian about it apart from the name. Or from Greg Seider, you could try a Grassland Vesper, “a delicate balance of gin, vodka, orange bitters and spiced Ethiopian honey wine syrup that evokes an age of African grandeur.”

And although this is a story of potent potables, I’d be remiss not to draw your attention to this recipe for a bowl of Ethiopian punch: 7 Up, grape juice, pineapple juice, lemon juice, orange juice, maraschino cherry juice and raspberry syrup. It doesn’t get much sweeter, so I’d recommend spiking it with kakitala or araqe.

As for cocktails in Ethiopia, my friend Menkir Tamrat tells me they’re rare.

“Some folks drink tonic water and just ask for vodka tonic,” he says. “When I was a teenager – no drinking age limit there, just an honor system – there was a mixed drink in Addis known by the name of green fire. I was too ignorant to ask or know what it was made from, but the color was green, as the name suggests. Must have been some crème de menthe in there, but it was cheap and got you drunk quickly.”

Menkir has even dreamed up a cocktail that uses his Yamatt Tej, which he makes and sells in the bay area of northern California. He calls it the Yamattini, and you make it with three ounces of gin, one ounce of vodka, and a half ounce (or more, to taste) of t’ej. “Throw in a twist of your favorite citrus peel and give it a whirl,” Menkir says. “Shaken or stirred.”

Harry Kloman

University of Pittsburgh

FOOTNOTE: The words at the top are the ways to toast in Swedish, German, Spanish, Somali, Croatian, Gaelic, Finnish, Romanian and Russian (na zdorovye).


Here’s a video of Ethiopians in a village of the Ari culture making araqe:



Here’s a video of Ethiopians making and drinking t’alla:

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