Lalibella cooking sessions

Lalibela was one of my favourite places on my trip around Northern Ethiopia. This is a laid back town, with no cars and home to stunning churches carved out of rocks.


Each day we were followed by a hareem of both pre-pubescent and teenage boys, although some were asking for money for supposed school books, the majority were simply wanting to practice their English. By the end of my visit here, I had a collection of trinkets, promises to exchange emails and several invitations to coffee ceremonies.


New friends aside, it was the food in Lalibela and those making it, that of course I became particularly fond of. I spent a couple of days learning to cook Ethiopian food: the first in a little understated restaurant called ‘Unique’, which has an accurate sign outside stating ‘Recommended by forengie’ (which is the term for foreigners), although the place is popular with both locals and tourists. Unique is run by a lovely, warm woman named Sisco, who’s English is better than she claims, and I convinced her to allow me to spend the morning in her kitchen helping her chefs prepare lunch for the customers.

Sisco, owner of 'Unique'

Sisco, owner of ‘Unique’










Sisco gave me an Ethiopian name: ‘Ganet’. Initially I thought she was referring to the amount I eat, but I was informed this means ‘heaven’ (so, much more fitting I think!). I was amazed by their resourcefulness, with the little space they have. This is a very ‘local’ and basic kitchen, where everything is cooked over an open fire, which certainly adds to the flavour. We cooked over 8 dishes in the space of just 2 hours, ready to serve by 10.30am when locals start coming in for lunch.

Chopping chilis for chilli sauce

Chopping chilis for chilli sauce









I came back after lunch, when I was joined by my 3 friends/fellow travellers for the cooking lesson.This was taught by Sisco’s daughter, Tigist. By the afternoon, this was not such a comfortable experience, with the sunlight pouring into the open kitchen, whilst we were also slaving over a hot stove (if you do this course, I would advise to go in the morning instead!).




Making injera

Making injera

We learnt to cook several dishes including yellow split pea stew, injeera, beetroot and carrots, and everyone’s favourite, ‘shiro fases.’

The main spices used in Ethiopian cuisine are turmeric, berbere and shiro. Berbere is a red spice blend, which is made out of ground red chilli peppers, ginger, onion, salt and garlic (subject to local variations!). Shiro powder is made from chickpeas, onion, garlic, cinnamon, (again different blends vary) which are dried out in the sun over 15 days and then ground in a huge machine.

Of course, according to Tigist, her mother’s Shiro is the best, and I was encouraging them to capatalise on this by selling it to tourists, but I think they kind of have enough to do already to keep them pretty busy.

Despite Shiro being the most popular dish, it is one of the simplest to make (recipe below). ‘Shiro tagino’ is thick shiro, the consistency of a paste, and ‘shiro fases’ has a lighter sauce consistency. The flavors are like nothing I have ever tasted; very rich, creamy, and slightly spicy (again the heat level varies).

Shiro fases

Shiro fases








Ethiopian cuisine is fairly simple, and many recipes start off with cooking finely chopped onions in a lot of oil, over a medium-high heat for about 20 minutes. The trick to stop them burning is to add a little water as the onions soak up the oil. Then the spice of choice is added, alongside pulse of your choice (we used yellow split peas and green lentils). Unlike a number of other cuisines, garlic is added towards the end of the cooking process (and a lot of it), meaning the garlic is more intense. Personally, I prefer my garlic cooked a bit more, since I’m not so keen on the taste of raw garlic, and I have adapted the recipes below, so that they are cooked at an earlier stage of the process.

Our feast at the end of the lesson at Unique

Our feast at the end of the lesson at Unique








My 2nd cookery lesson took place in the restaurant of the upmarket ‘Mountain view hotel’. We had been for a delicious meal here and afterwards got chatting to the chef, Mareg, who kindly agreed, on his day off, to meet me in his kitchen, where we practiced a number of the dishes that I had made the day previously, with some variations, such as shiro tagino (thick shiro) and chapattis. Chapatti’s are often eaten in the more rural parts of Ethiopia, and made from barley flour. The mountain view kitchen, was quite the contrast to the local kitchen the previous day, and like a professional kitchen that you would find in a more Westernised restaurant, except that everyone seemed a little more relaxed.

Chef Mareg at Mountain view

Chef Mareg at Mountain view










At the end of my 2 days, I felt so lucky to have met such welcoming and lovely people, who were willing to give up their time to teach me about this rich culture, and I came away feeling inspired to recreate the dishes on home turf. Unique restaurant in Lalibela offers cookery lessons for up to 4 people (you wouldn’t want to squeeze more in such a small space). They don’t have a website and I’m not sure you can book remotely, but you can just turn up and book for the next day. But, if on your trip you don’t find anywhere offering courses, I would always recommend chatting to locals of the place you’re staying or in restaurants you will visit, as you’ll probably find, many will be happy to teach you a thing or 2 about their cuisine and if you don’t mind getting a bit sweaty, even let you into their kitchens.

Me in the mountain view

Me in the mountain view








Below are some typical Ethiopian recipes. Although locals will make their own shiro and berbere, if you are anything like me, it is unlikely you will have the patience or conditions to do this. However, in London there are a lot of Ethiopian shops dotted around the city (Finsbury Park and Stockwell have a few) where you can buy these ingredients from.

Yellow split pea stew

250 dried yellow split peas, washed

5 tbsp of vegetable/sunflower oil

1 large onion finely chopped

½ tbsp. of minced garlic (approx. 3 cloves)

½ tbsp of minced, peeled ginger

½ tsp turmeric

750 ml (3 cups) water (more if required)

1 tsp salt

500g fresh baby spinach (or frozen is also fine)

Juice of half a lemon

Place split peas in a pan of water, bring to boil, cook for approximately 25 minutes and drain.

In the meantime heat oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions and salt, cook for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, until caramelized, stir regularly, adding water if they start to dry out. Add garlic and ginger and cook for a further 2 minutes, stirring regularly.

Stir in turmeric and drained split peas. Stir for 1 minute. Add approximately 500 ml of water, cook for a further 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding more water if needed – it should be thick, so be careful not to add too much water. Add spinach, and cook for 5 minutes. Stir through lemon juice and add further salt if needed. Turn off heat.

Green/brown lentils with berbere 

200g of green/brown lentils

1 large finely chopped onion

5 tbsp vegetable/sunflower oil

½ tbsp minced garlic

3 tbsp berbere powder

1tsp salt

750 ml (3 cups) water (more if required)

Place lentils in a pan of water, bring to boil, cook for approximately 20 minutes and drain (they should be cooked through but still have a bite).

In the meantime heat oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions and salt, cook for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, until caramelized, stir regularly, adding water if they start to dry out. Add garlic and berbere and cook for a further 2 minutes, stirring regularly. Add approximately 1 cup of water and cook for a further 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Add cooked lentils and more water if necessary. Cook for a further 10 minutes. Season to taste. Turn off heat.

Shiro Fases

5 tbsp of shiro powder

4 tbsp vegetable/sunflower oil

½ tbsp minced garlic

1 large finely chopped onion

750 ml (3 cups) water (more if necessary)

2 chopped (de-seeded) jalapenos

Heat oil in saucepan, add onions and salt and cook over a medium heat for approximately 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Add garlic and cook for a further 3 minutes, stirring regularly. Add 1 cup of water, once boiling add the shiro powder and stir regularly until it thickens – approximately 5 to 10 minutes. You can add more water if necessary – it should be a thick sauce consistency. Remove from the heat. Add jalapenos to serve.

You can serve any mixture of the above 2 dishes, with 2 or 3 vegetable side dishes, such as any combination of beetroot, carrots, potatoes or cabbage, cooked spinach and injeera or chapattis.


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