Ethiopia’s national dish is wat, a type of stew spiced with hot pepper sauce. The key to wat is its rich and spicy sauce, which usually contains salt, garlic, ginger, black pepper, cardamom, onion, lemon juice, nutmeg, wine, water, spiced butter, paprika, fenugreek seeds, and berbere. The most popular form of wat, doro wat (“DOR-oh weht”), contains chicken. However, wat can also contain beef, lamb, fish, or vegetables. Vegetarian wat, based on lentils, beans, or chickpeas, is eaten by members of the Orthodox Church on fast days.
The most important side dish in Ethiopian meals is injera, a special kind of bread made from teff, an Ethiopian grain. When preparing injera, Ethiopian women first hand-grind teff grain to make flour. Next they make the batter by combining the flour with water and letting the mixture ferment for three or four days.
Then they pour the fermented batter in a circular pattern onto a clay griddle over a fire. Cooking only takes a few minutes. The finished product is a thin, pancakeshaped bread with little pits from fermentation bubbles. It has a mild, slightly sour taste and a spongy, limp texture. During mealtimes, injera is kept in a covered basket beside the main dish. Diners use the bread to scoop up food and absorb spicy sauces.
As a rule, Ethiopians do not consume nearly as much meat as Westerners. When a meal does call for meat, chicken, beef, or lamb are typically the most common choices; in the dry lowland regions, people sometimes eat goat or camel meat. Kitfo (“KIT-foh”) is a popular dish made with raw chopped beef and spices. The first step in making kitfo is to saute onions, green peppers, chilies, ginger, garlic, and cardamom in spiced butter. Once this is done, lemon juice, berbere, salt, and raw beef are added. The finished kitfo can be an appetizer or a main dish and is often served in green peppers or with injera.
Dried beef is commonly eaten in rural areas as well. The meat is cut into strips, cured with salt, pepper, and berbere, and hung out to dry in a cool place for approximately two weeks. It is then eaten as a snack food.
One of Ethiopia’s most popular vegetarian meals is yataklete kilkil (“yah-TAH-kelt KIL-i-kil”), a casserole of fresh vegetables flavored with garlic and ginger. It is served as a main dish during Lent and as a side dish at other times of the year. Typical ingredients for yataklete kilkil besides garlic and ginger include potatoes, broccoli, carrots, green beans, onions, cauliflower, green pepper, hot chilies, salt, pepper, and scallions. This meal is traditionally served with injera or rice. Yemiserselatta (“yeh-mis-SIR seh- LAH-tah”) is another vegetarian favorite. This is a lentil-based salad with shallots and chilies, commonly served during Lent.
Although injera is the most popular accompaniment to Ethiopian meals, a number of other side dishes are commonly served throughout the country as well. Dabo kolo (“DAH-boh KOH-loh”) is a roasted biscuit made with wheat flour, berbere, sugar, and salt. It makes a crunchy, spicy snack. Yeshimbra assa (“yeh-shim-BRAH AH-sa”) is the name for fish-shaped snacks made from chickpea flour. Ground chickpeas, oil, onions, berbere, salt and pepper are mixed and formed into a paste. They are then molded into fish shapes, fried, and served. For dessert, Ethiopians sometimes serve strawberries; stalks of sugarcane are also chewed as sweet snacks.
A special butter is used widely as a spread and in cooking. This spicy butter, known locally as niter kebbeh (“NIT-er ki-BAY”), is made from butter, onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. It is an essential ingredient in wat.
A traditional Ethiopian meal includes a selection of wats served on injera and accompanied by tej (“tehj”), a honey wine. The meal Is laid out on a mesob, a traditional Ethiopian basket used as a table.
Alecha (“ah-LEH- chah ”) is a milder stew than wat. It commonly contains chicken or beef combined with onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, green peppers, chilies, garlic, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and salt.
THE SPICE OF LIFE
It would be hard to imagine Ethiopian food without spices. They are an essential ingredient of the country’s most popular meal— wat—and give countless other dishes their flavor and heat. Among Ethiopia’s most commonly used spices are pepper, garlic, bishop’s weed, rue, mint, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, and nutmeg.
Several of these spices are combined with powerful peppers, herbs, and water to form berbere, the favorite hot sauce of Ethiopian cooks. Berbere is a key ingredient in beef and chicken stews and is used as a dip for raw meat dishes. The exact ingredients used to make berbere form a long list: paprika, red pepper, salt, ginger, onion, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, black pepper, fenugreek, coriander, red wine, water, vegetable oil, cumin, and turmeric. These items are delicately mixed and heated to form a zesty sauce as hot as fire.
The famous South African author Laurens van der Post tried berbere on one of his early trips to Ethiopia. When his hosts offered him raw meat dipped in berbere sauce, van der Post decided to be adventurous. “If one must eat meat raw,” he recalled later, “it is surely best done in this way, for the sauce gives the impression of being hot enough to cook the meat right on the tongue.”
Ethiopian cups and glasses are usually filled with milk, beer, wine, tea, or coffee. Milk is traditionally a children’s beverage and can come from camels, cows, or goats. Ethiopia’s own variety of home-brewed beer is known as tella (“TEH-lah”), and can be made from barley, corn, or wheat. Tej, the Ethiopian wine, is made from honey and has been served in the country for centuries. It is usually poured from distinctive narrow-necked glass decanters.