Ethiopian Food Feature Ethiopian Cultural Food | Stories by Soumya

Ethiopian Cultural Food – A Beginner’s Guide

Last Updated on October 13, 2023 by Soumya

It was a cold, rainy night in New York City and I was in no mood to cook. I wanted to sit at the window of the tiny, comfy Manhattan apartment, staring at the silhouette of Madame Liberty and getting lost in the din of the dockyard below. Ethiopian cultural food was nowhere in my mind then!

“Fancy a takeaway?”, the husband suggested. Sure! But what kind? Eating out in New York is always exciting and sometimes overwhelming. There is so much you can try and yet, not run out of options.

We thought of Africa!

African food had eluded us until then. Apart from the very European food on our Tanzanian safari, some great Egyptian Koshari, and authentic Mauritian Dholl Puri, we hadn’t really tried much.

And Africa, as you all know, has more than 50 countries and hence, is capable of presenting any food lover with a gastronomic extravaganza.

It was not difficult to pick Ethiopia after we had decided on Africa because several Ethiopian restaurants dot NYC, many with great reviews. Also, the Ethiopian platter vaguely reminded me of the Indian thali and I wanted to start with some knowns before beginning my gastronomic journey into this exotic continent.

I have never been to Ethiopia but I have always dreamed of going there. The country is so full of history and culture – it just feels like the perfect travel destination for me.

You can refer to a quick itinerary of Ethiopia here. No doubt, I was super excited about trying Ethiopian food.

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Ethiopian Cultural Food – Have You Tried It Yet?

That’s how my love affair with the exotic Ethiopian cuisine began.

Ever since I fell in love, I have read quite a bit about the cuisine. And I am not surprised to learn that it is still to be discovered by the world.

That is mostly because Ethiopian cuisine has not traveled much outside its country of origin when compared to other cuisines. 

Additionally, it takes a while for some people to get accustomed to eating with their hands, and for many to share the same plate with everyone else on the table. You have to let go of some inhibitions before you jump in.

Here is my quick and short guide on what to expect on your first try of Ethiopian cultural food.

The food is typically served on an Injera bread that is laid upon a huge round metallic plate called the gebeta.

And you get just one gebeta for the entire table. The greater the number of people, the bigger the gebeta.

Eating together is an essential part of the Ethiopian culture and feeding each other is often a loving thing to do. A common gebeta is popular in Europe while many places in the USA do serve your order on different plates.

The Ubiquitous Injera

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Injera forms the base, literally and figuratively, of Ethiopian Traditional Food

Of course, when you talk about any cuisine you start with the stalwart items. Here, we start with the best Ethiopian dishes, the first being the much-loved Injera bread.

Injera is the national dish of Ethiopia as well as of its neighbors Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. It is a flatbread made out of teff flour obtained from the teff grass native to the horn of Africa. Click here for the recipe.

You have to love injera to enjoy Ethiopian food because it forms the backbone of every meal. It is the thin, brown, perforated bread that you can see in the picture below.

Bits of injera serve as spoons that can be used to scoop up vegetables or meat, very similar to how we eat chapati and curries in India.

In my plate above, I have (clockwise) Kik Alecha (yellow split pea stew), Alecha Wat (cabbage and carrot stirfry), Misr Wat (red lentil stew), some cheese for the European palate, and Doro Wat (slow-cooked chicken stew) which also includes a boiled egg, and some salad.

The Meals

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Yetsom Beyaynetu – A Vegetarian’s Delight

Usually, an Ethiopian meal includes several vegetarian options and one meat stew. You can opt for an all veg meal too called the Yetsom Beyaynetu.

You will be surprised but Ethiopia has some of the best vegetarian food in the world. 

My favorite vegetarian dishes include the Misr Wat (shown in the picture above) and the Shiro Wat, a spicy chickpea powder dish. Since you are hearing the word “Wat” quite a bit, a Wat is a stew of any kind in Ethiopia.

Stews are spiced up using a number of spices but the most staple one is Berbere. It is used to season a number of Ethiopian dishes.

Authentic Berbere can be hard to find outside the Horn of Africa. So, it is easier to ask the owner of an Ethiopian restaurant where to find it than to go and look for it on your own. Epicurious has a recipe here which you may want to follow if you don’t find it in a shop.

Ethiopian food can be heavy on meat too. The spicy chicken stew, known as Doro Wat (shown in the picture above) is delicious. Ethiopian Beef Tibs are also popular.

A Wonderful Balance of Flavors And Nutrition

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Eating Together – The Very Essence of Ethiopian Cultural Food

The cuisine is not only flavorful and delicious it is also nutritious and well balanced.

It includes a good number of vegetables and an adequate amount of protein, both plant and animal. Hardly anything is deep-fried.

Additionally, Ethiopians believe in slow eating. They eat together with family and friends for hours. Everyone sits at the same table taking bites of injera and scooping up the amazingly delicious wats with every bite.

It is amazing how I fell in love with Ethiopian food especially the slightly sour injera bread. So much so that I ate at every possible Ethiopian restaurant on my recent trip to Europe.

I am a hardcore meat lover but my favorite Ethiopian dishes are the Misr Wat and the Shiro Wat, both made of plant proteins. I would not care for any chicken if these were on my table.

Want to try some Ethiopian Cultural Food?

Here is a list of some good places that I had Ethiopian food during my travels. Know of another good place? Leave me a comment below and I will surely try it on my next visit.

  1. New York City – Massawa, Harlem (Highly recommended)
  2. Washington DC – Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant (Highly recommended)
  3. Munich – Blue Nile
  4. Berlin – Bejte Ethiopia (Highly recommended)
  5. Paris – Restaurant Godjo (The portions are small)
  6. Bangkok – Taye Ethiopian Restaurant

Ethiopian Cuisine is one of my favorites. And I can dig into some Ethiopian cultural food anywhere in this world. What is your favorite? Could be Ethiopian if you try it! So what are you waiting for? Go, grab a table, get your hands on an injera and let me know how you liked it.

Also, read my post on Senegalese food from West Africa.

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Ethiopian Cultural Food | Stories by Soumya

Soumya is an acclaimed travel writer who has traveled to 30+ countries and lived in 8 while pursuing her passion for history and culture. Her writings have been published in BBC Travel, Architectural Digest, National Herald, and many more. She loves exploring world heritage sites and has a deep affinity for everything ancient, especially the lost civilizations of Mesoamerica!

23 thoughts on “Ethiopian Cultural Food – A Beginner’s Guide

  1. There’s a good reason why different people eat different kinds of food or have different culinary traditions. More than we think, there is a strong connection between food and culture.


  2. To be honest, I never considered Ethiopian food to be any special until I see it here. It looks delicious. And the fact that it is nutritious and balanced makes it even more inviting. Yetsom Beyaynetu is a huge meal and reminds me of thali too 🙂 Now that you say, its true I have not noticed Ethiopian cuisine restaurants anywhere that I have traveled to, so it has not really be spread outside its country of origin. Will keep an eye out.

  3. I’ve visited a few different Ethiopian restaurants in Milan and Rome – and I have to say, I love Ethiopian food. It’s a really good social eating experience and super tasty too! I’m looking forward to visiting the country and seeing how authentic my experiences have been!

  4. Slaves of Ethopian origin (known as Habshi) had a significant impact on Indian history during the medieval period. Did they have any known impact of Indian cuisine that you are aware of?

    1. That is a very interesting point that you have raised. I had not thought on those lines. But this would be an interesting piece of research.

  5. I only tried Ethiopian food once. It was during a food festival in Helsinki, We have a restaurant day, where people from all over the world sell food.

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