Ribs & Tibs: The Story of Ethiopian Beef

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TWO AND A HALF MILLION YEARS AGO, in the Afar Desert of Ethiopia, history’s early butchers figured out a way to turn a dead animal into the evening meal.

Archaeologists near the Afar town of Bouri in 1999 uncovered prehistoric antelope bones scarred with scratches from rocks that they believe the ancients used as knives. Their discovery pushed back the time that our human ancestors butchered meat by more than a million years.

“We’re right at the beginning of the great leap that followed meat eating,” UC Berkeley’s J. Desmond Clark said at the time, and this consumption of meat allowed some early hominids – that is, upright walking apes – to outlast others, creating a line of evolution that eventually led to Homo sapiens.

A decade later, another team of archaeologists, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, said hominids may even have used tools to butcher meat 3.4 million years ago.

As if channeling the spirits of their ultra-ancient ancestors, Ethiopians today cherish meat, so much so that some of them spend more than 200 days of the year not eating it. When the time arrives to break these vegetarian-only fasts, meat becomes even more prized and delectable.

Shent, a prime cut of Ethiopian beef (drawing and photograph)

Shent, a prime cut of Ethiopian beef (drawing and photo)

“Meat plays pivotal and vital parts in special occasions and its cultural symbolic weight is markedly greater than that accorded to most other food,” Semeneh Seleshe writes in his 2013 study, Meat Consumption Culture in Ethiopia. “The consumption of meat and meat products has a very tidy association with religious beliefs and is influenced by religions. The main religions of Ethiopia have their own peculiar doctrines of setting the feeding habits and customs of their followers.”

In fact, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has as many as 250 “fasting days,” which means no food before midday and no meat when you finally have a meal. Semeneh says that 62 percent of Ethiopian Christians observe in this way, and about 85 percent of butchers in Addis Ababa close on Wednesdays and Fridays, which are fasting days. Ethiopian Christians also eschew meat during the Lenten period and before Christmas.

In their thorough (perhaps definitive) 1985 essay, Ethiopian Meat (Beef) Cut, Tsehay Neway and Feseha Gebreab studied beef cuts in the cities of Debre Zeit, Modjo, Nazareth, Dukam, and their surroundings in the center of the country, not too far from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

To identify their 14 cuts of beef, the researchers, both on the faculty of veterinary medicine at Addis Ababa University, slaughtered a year-old steer at the school and talked with local butchers and community elders.

They also drew on data from the slaughter of 40 other animals in a traditional manner known as kircha, wherein a large group of people – as many as 20 or 30 in a community – share the animal. Every part of the animal – meat, organs, bones – goes to people in the group in equal portions.

As Semeneh describes the practice: “A cow or an ox is commonly butchered for the sole purpose of selling within the community. On special occasions, people have a cultural ceremony of slaughtering the cow or ox and sharing among the group, which is a very common option for the people in rural areas where access to meat is frequently challenging.”

Kircha, the process of dividing a butchered animal between a large  group of people

Kircha, the process of dividing a butchered animal between a large group of people

Tsehay and Feseha don’t delve very deeply into these cultural elements of sharing the meat, focusing instead on the practice of butchering the animal.

“Meat is one of the most universally liked foods,” their report begins, “and people in a11 parts of the world have established their own way of cutting and preparing meat for consumption. Therefore, there are now, in every civilized society, traditionally accepted modes of cutting meat. Different cuts of meat vary greatly in tenderness and it is possible that the cuts are prepared with the state and mode of consumption in mind.”

The scholars found that “no two meat cuts of similar origin are identical. The uniformity of the cut largely depends upon the experience and ski11 of the butcher and the sharpness of the knives at his disposal.” And they say that in urban areas, “marketing trends” have led to “some meat portions of inferior quality with traditionally recognized first class cuts.” Even in Ethiopia, it seems there’s nothing like good home butcherin’.

Needless to say, it takes some skill and training to partition a large animal into so many clearly defined cuts of meat. USAID, an agency that aids development around the world, has published a vividly illustrated and detailed guidethat teaches Ethiopians how to butcher an animal, although the guide notes that it’s “not a substitute for hands on practical training.” Where Tsehay and Feseha use drawings in their essay to show the cuts of meat, the USAID guidebook uses many color photographs. Another USAID booklet shows a variety of Ethiopian meat cuts prepared for export.

These are the pathways that beef takes from farm to table (Ahmed, Harissa, et al, 2003)

These are the pathways that beef takes from farm to table (Ahmed, Harissa, et al, 2003)

Here, then, are the 14 cuts that Tsehay and Feseha identified, all named in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia. They may well have different names in other Ethiopian languages, like Tigrinya and Oromo. The researchers’ descriptions often use medical terms to refer to body parts, so I’ll try to simplify. And I’ll use the generic term “cow” to refer to the animal, although understand that the cattle raised in Ethiopia is different from the cattle we raise in the west (see photos below).

I should note that these are traditional cuts, and in modern Ethiopian butcher shops, partitioning the animal is often simplified into cuts good for three kinds of dishes: qurt (raw chunks of meat), tibs (fried in spiced butter, often with sliced onions or peppers), and wot (cooked in a thick onion sauce).

Shent. Ethiopians love to eat raw meat, and there’s no finer cut for it than shent. The word refers to the side of the body, so this cut comes from the neck and rump, “long and slender and largely made of soft and juicy flesh. Shent is number one in choice for raw consumption. It is also enjoyed as pan broil or braise. It is in fact a well-esteemed gift that can be presented to close friends and relatives.” In American parlance, this would be a rib-eye steak.

Bete Salgegne. Another fine cut of meat, the name refers to “the difficulty in obtaining this cut in predetermined uniform pieces since it is always subject to variations due to its position in the carcass.” A combination of meat from the shoulder, ribs and brisket, it brings a higher price if it contains more fat, called marbling in the meat business. In the zebu, a humped Ethiopian species of cattle, this cut is nicely marbled and goes by the name shanga (“sha-nya”). It, too, is good for raw dishes and to give as a gift.

Tanash. This cut comes from a variety of places: some soft juicy marbled muscles, and some tougher tendons, so it’s not ideal for a raw meal.

Fremba. This cut comes from “the breast, short plate and the flank, with the exclusion of the sternum and ribs,” and it’s made up of “fleshy muscles well impregnated with fat.” It, too, can be eaten raw, although it’s not as fine as the other preferred raw cuts.

Talak. This is “the meat of choice for preparation of the national dish known as kitfo,” which is raw chopped beef seasoned with niter kibe and mitmita (spiced butter and hot red pepper). The authors also say that despite the presence of pubic bones, it’s considered to be a boneless cut, and the small amount of bone allows butchers to hang the meat on a hook.

Two butcher shops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Two butcher shops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Mehal Ageda. Here’s a very precise cut made up of one muscle and the bone associated with it so it can hang from a hook. The name means “central cane” because of its central location on the animal, and it’s good for making kitfo.

Nebro. This is fleshy belly meat “infiltrated with tendon.” The name is Amharic for tiger because of “the strength of the muscle whose fibrillation is also considered to be similar to the expressions of the furious animal during moments of wrath.”

Tuncha. Good for braising, the fleshy tuncha comes from the muscles of the leg and foot of the animal.

Nekela or Nikay. Need to feed a family? Then consider this cut, composed of talak, mehal ageda, nebro and tuncha, with bones of the thigh and leg. This makes it especially convenient for consumers because they can use the various portions however they choose.

Goden te Dabit. This cut comes from the animal’s first seven ribs and the muscle and connective tissue that goes with it. Two of the muscles are fleshy and marbled, and one of those two, the dabit, makes a good raw meal. The rest of this cut is better cooked.

Gebeta. Here’s a diverse and complex piece of meat, “made of the inner part of the breast, short plate, flank and brisket. It is composed of half of the sternum, asternal ribs with their cartilages.” Part fleshy, part tendonous, the name means “naked” and refers to the fact that it removes the fremba – that is, the fleshier marbled meat that comes from these areas of the animal.

Sebrada. This term refers to the last two ribs on a cow, and also “the last two floating ribs in man.” The meat of this cut comes from the muscular and fleshy parts of the ribs.

Two types of humped Ethiopian cattle: Horro (l) and Sheko

Two types of humped Ethiopian cattle: Horro (l) and Sheko

Chekena. A sub-cut of sebrada, the chekena (or cheqena) comes from the soft tender flesh of the iliopsoas muscle, sold separately and “consumed roasted or pan broiled,” while the rest of the sebrada cut is braised. The word chequn means “poor person,” so this is sometimes considered to be a poor man’s cut of meat. From time to time, on menus at Ethiopian restaurant, you’ll find chekena tibs. Most restaurants spell it chikina tibs, though, which at first glance might make you think it’s a chicken dish. But chekena is a better transliteration of the Amharic, and cheqena is better yet.

Werch. A low grade of meat, best eaten cooked, werch comes from the animal’s muscular shoulders and arms. Some of it is fleshy, but much is heavy with tendon.

Dendes. This cut, last and least, “is not fit to be included amongst the ranks of proper meat.” It’s made up of a mass of bone and pieces of flesh detached from parts of the animal’s last lumbar vertebra. Fortunately, you’ll never find dendes tibs on an Ethiopian restaurant menu.

THE EMINENT ETHIOPIAN SCHOLAR Richard Pankhurst writes about some of these cuts of beef in his 1986 essay, The Hierarchy of the Feast: The Partition of the Ox in Traditional Ethiopia. Cattle was very important in ancient Ethiopia, but even if you owned a cow that you planned to use for food, a commoner couldn’t slaughter his cow without permission from the local ruler. No doubt the ruler got a portion of the slaughtered animal in thanks for his permission, Pankhurst speculates.

Pankhurst’s fascinating essay details every aspect of a royal banquet, which was highly ritualized. Each part of the slaughtered cow produced a cut of meat with a name of its own: tanash sega, or “small meat,” came from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters,” the goden dabit were “five of the foremost ribs,” the engeda is “a prime fleshy part, taken from the muscle close to the thigh bone,” and shent comes from “the side of the backbone as far as the shoulder.” Of course, the revelers ate all of this meat raw.

Two regional Ethiopian cattle breeds: Arado (l), from northern Tigray;  and Afar, from the northeast Afar region

Two regional Ethiopian cattle breeds: Arado (l), from northern Tigray;
and Afar, from the northeast Afar region

In the mid-19th Century, Emperor Yohannes IV ended the practice of seeking permission to slaughter an ox, although in some Ethiopian cultures, the custom persisted: Local rulers might be entitled to the animal’s lesana manka (the tongue and breast meat) if a member of his town slaughtered an animal for a special occasion, like a marriage, funeral or holiday celebration.

Pankhurst’s essay – his information drawn from historic accounts – explores how law and custom prescribed who got what upon the slaughtering of an ox. People of the highest ranks got such prized cuts as the “small meat” from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters,” or the “large meat” from the hip bone with part of the buttock. These succulent steaks were just some of the portions that went to the aristocrats, and it’s hard to believe there was very much of the good stuff left after the upper classes got their tributes.

But there’s a downside to this love of beef, especially in modern times, when a cow isn’t what it used to be.

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.

Back then, a 2012 report from Addis Ababa declared, “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.”

Doctors in Ethiopia say that “for long-time raw meat lovers, the taste has changed a lot. The change, they say, is the way the oxen are fattened. In the old days, the meat always came from naturally grown cattle. The elders say that cattle in the old days ate naturally grown grass, which has a lot of organic and healing contents.” But meat today is more marbled – that is, it contains more tasty fat – and that has increased cholesterol levels in people who eat a lot of it.

SO WHAT, IN THE END, do you do with all of this meat? How do you prepare it and serve it?

If you want to eat it raw the way they enjoy it in Ethiopia, you have several options: gored gored is chunks of tere siga (literally, “raw meat”) that you can dip in awaze, a hot pepper sauce; kitfo, a favorite dish that comes from Ethiopia’s Gurage culture, is ground raw meat seasoned with mitmita and cardamom, then cooked in niter kibe; and qurt is a long strip of raw meat that you cut into pieces yourself with a knife (the ritual of doing it is part of the fun of the meal).

In addition to tere siga, another general word for raw meat is brindo. And this way of eating meat is strictly for adults: You have to reach a certain age before your parents will let you have raw meat. Like all things with parenting, the age depends on the family.

Three beef dishes: gored gored, chunks of  raw meat; derek ("dry") tibs,  fried in Ethiopian butter; and siga wot, a spicy stew

Three beef dishes: gored gored, chunks of raw meat; derek (“dry”) tibs,
fried in Ethiopian butter; and siga wot, a spicy stew

Boston University’s James McCann, one of the world’s foremost scholars on Ethiopian food, says that reaching the age at which you can eat raw meat “is a marker of post-adolescence, like long pants.” And he notes that people in Ethiopia see raw meat differently than expats in America.

“Raw meat is very rare in the diet, so children would not be high on the pecking order,” he says. “Expatriate Ethiopians have lots of cultural myths that claim historical background, but really only date from the Addis Ababa elite or upper-middle-class practice in the mid-20th century. Raw beef cut in chunks or strips has been around for a long time. Kitfo is a fairly recent addition to urban diet, but it is popular. And there is an exception to every rule given regional variation.”

He notes, for example, that you’ll find no mention of kitfo in Impressions d’Éthiopie (1913), written by the Frenchman Paul Merab, who was Emperor Menelik’s French-speaking doctor (née Petre Mérabichvili in the republic of Georgia). His memoir provides a detailed account of “21 distinct culinary preparations that he reckoned made up the national cuisine of the day.” Mereb called his list “le cordon bleu etiopienne.” Nor does Harold Marcus, a renowned Ethiopian scholar and one of McCann’s teachers at Michigan State University, mention kitfo in his accounts of Emperor Menelik’s early 20th Century feasts.

A 2012 study of meat consumption in Ethiopia confirms McCann’s assertion about the rarity of meat in the Ethiopian diet, despite the culture’s love of it.

“Ethiopia is known to have one of the largest livestock populations in the world,” the report says. “Yet the overall contribution to Ethiopian households’ daily consumption is very limited. At the national level, the average per capita annual consumption of meat and dairy products is just 5.3 kg and 16.7 kg, respectively. The consumption of livestock products, however, varies considerably between urban and rural areas. Urban areas have higher consumption of meat, whereas rural areas have higher consumption of dairy products.”

Two more things to note about kitfo. First, in the Gurage culture from which it came into the national cuisine, you don’t eat it with injera the way you do other dishes. The Gurages scoop it up with long-handled spoons, often made out of animal horns. And your “bread” at the meal is traditionally qocho, made from the fermented trunk of the enset plant, sometimes called the false banana because it resembles a banana tree. The kitfo comes to the table displayed on a dark green enset leaf with some qocho on the side. You might also get a side of ayib, the fluffy white Ethiopian cheese, and the ayib may have some gomen (collard greens or kale) mixed into it, making it a dish called zemamoojat.

For those who prefer their meat cooked, siga wot is the basic dish: chunks of meat stewed in kulet, a thick sauce of onions, berbere (another red pepper powder) and niter kibe, plus a few other spices (chef’s choice). This is my personal favorite. The mild variation is siga alicha, where the spices are ginger and turmeric rather than red pepper. Derek tibs are pieces of beef fried up in niter kibe, with onions and jalapeño peppers tossed in. The word derek means “dry,” so you won’t get any juicy kulet with this variation. Minchet abish is cooked ground beef seasoned with fenugreek (abish in Amharic).

Another view of dividing up the cow, from a dissertation by Nicholas Weber

Another view of dividing up the cow, from a dissertation by Nicholas Weber

Or you might try goden tibs (Ethiopian short ribs of beef, lamb or goat) or, if you can find it, some qualima or wakalim (varieties of Ethiopian sausage). Rarer still is ouatala, salted and spiced cuts of fat from the hump of the zebu (an African cow) that begin to taste like smoked ham after they’re hung for a while from the back of the house. And let’s not forget quanta, the Ethiopian beef jerky – dried, chewy and spicy hot. You can even cook quanta in a kulet to make a saucy beef entrée.

Restaurant menus can sometimes get a little confusing because of the sub-categories or alternative names of these basic dishes. Zilzil tibs, for example, is essentially derek tibs with the meat cut into strips rather than chunks. Kay wot (or quy wot) is just a more descriptive name for siga wotkay means “red,” which tells you that there’s hot pepper in it. Dishes like shent tibs or chekena tibs refer to the cut of meat that the restaurant uses. I’ve seen the dish kintot (or qintot) on menus, taken from the Amharic word for “luxury,” so this means a dish with lots and lots of meat.

But you really needn’t worry about what your dish is called: Just read the menu description, ask a few questions, order some veggie side dishes – gomen and ayib go especially well – and relish your meat like an Ethiopian.

Harry Kloman

University of Pittsburgh

Butchering and eating raw meat in Ethiopia:

Visit an Ethiopian butcher shop in Toronto:

Ashu Grocery is a well-known butcher shop in Addis Ababa:


Dining Out in Ethiopia

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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).

Two Addis restaurants: Beijing Restaurant (l) serves Chinese food, and Four Seasons serves Japanese.

Two Addis restaurants: Beijing Restaurant (l) serves Chinese food, and Four Seasons serves Japanese.

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 Ethiopia's capital, you can find Canadian cuisine and a German beer garden.

In Ethiopia’s capital, you can find Canadian cuisine and a German beer garden.

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.

A mother bet in Ethiopia

A mother bet in Ethiopia

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.

Fast food in Ethiopia: Mcdona Pizzaria, and the chain Chicken Hut

Fast food in Ethiopia: Mcdona Pizzaria, and the chain Chicken Hut

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.

Two extremes of Addis dining: The ultra-casual In-and-Out, and upscale French at La Mandoline.

Two extremes of Addis dining: The ultra-casual In-N-Out, and upscale French at La Mandoline.

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.”

Dodi Restaurant offers Sudanese cuisine, and Enya's Mediterranean Café is Greek

Dodi Restaurant offers Sudanese cuisine, and Enya’s Mediterranean Café is Greek

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.

Restaurants in the Moslem-flavored city of Harar vary from the stylish Ice Cream Mermaid café (l)  to the more traditional Hirut, which serves Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian dishes.

Restaurants in the Moslem-flavored city of Harar vary from the stylish Ice Cream Mermaid café (l)
to the more traditional Hirut, which serves Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian dishes

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!!”

In the historic city of Lalibela, you can get Ethiopian food at the very homey, tin-roofed Unique,  which is “recommanded by farngi” (foreigners), or the decidedly more upscale Seven Olives.

In the historic city of Lalibela, you can get Ethiopian food at the very homey, tin-roofed Unique,
which is “recommanded by farngi” (foreigners), or the decidedly more upscale Seven Olives

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.

In the southern lakeside city of Awassa,  you can dine at Dolce Vita (l), a café and art gallery, and just a few hundred miles away, in Jimma, the “birthplace of coffee,” try the restaurant at the Central Hotel.

In the southern lakeside city of Awassa, you can dine at Dolce Vita (l), a café and art gallery, and just a few hundred miles away, in Jimma, the “birthplace of coffee,” try the restaurant at the Central Hotel.

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.

The legendary city of Aksum, Ethiopia’s ancient capital, has Ethiopian and international cuisine  at Atse Yohannes Restaurant (l), and more international choices at the restaurant of the Yeha Hotel.

The legendary city of Aksum, Ethiopia’s ancient capital, has Ethiopian and international cuisine
at Atse Yohannes Restaurant (l), and more international choices at the restaurant of the Yeha Hotel

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.

A restaurant in Addis Ababa, circa 1935  (click to en large)

An Addis Ababa restaurant, circa 1935 (click to enlarge)

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.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Istanbul, a Turkish restaurant in Addis Ababa:


Louvre, a French café in Addis Ababa:


City Bar, in the city Bahir Dar:

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