Ethiopia is a vegetarian and vegan’s paradise, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays which are ‘fasting days’ when no meat, fish or dairy products are consumed. I timed my trip well, as I visited during Ethiopian lent, when for a period of 55 days many Ethiopians will fast until 3pm everyday and give up meat, fish and dairy products. Seemingly if you come just after lent, it is a big meat fest. Many places serve ‘Beyaynetu’, which is an Ethiopian fasting plate, consisting of various vegetarian/vegan dishes.
In Ethiopia, sharing food is common practice. A range of spiced pulse stews and vegetable dishes are generally presented on a large injeera (a sour dough kind of flatbread/pancake made from teff flour). In many restaurants staff will re-fill the different dishes as you finish them. For me, getting to try a bit of everything is of course my perfect type of meal, but as a solo traveller, the large portion sizes, having no one to share them with and a lack of self-control panicked me at first. Fortunately, I was not alone for long, and I soon met other travellers and locals who were happy to dine with me. You eat with your right hand (the left hand is reserved for personal hygiene); tearing off a piece of injeera and using this to scoop up the other stuff. There is a level of skill involved, which by the end of my 2 weeks, I still hadn’t mastered. I found myself getting too full from injeera, and needing to wipe my hands after every mouthful (the locals wait until they have finished eating until they wipe/wash their hands). In the posher restaurants they will even wash your hands for you at the start and the end of the meal.
Ethiopian food is generally less spicy than say Indian food, although you will tend to find lots of green chillis (mostly the jalapeno kind) and garlic added in. Spices were mostly used in pulses such as yellow split peas and green lentils, and vegetables are served more as a side dish, with fairly simple seasoning, such as garlic and/or ginger. Meals out are cheap: a tasting plate will generally set you back between £1 to £2 (which can often be enough to share between 2 or 3, depending on how hungry you are), and a beer between 50p to £1. If you need a break from Ethiopian food, in the more touristy restaurants, possibly due to the Italian influence (the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1913) in the more touristy restaurants you can normally find pizza and pasta – although nothing really like the stuff you find in Italy!
My top tips for eating in Ethiopia:
- Now I don’t want to sound like your mother, but remember to wash your hands at the start and end of the meal – especially as you’ll probably be sharing food.
- Order the Beyaynetu – the ethiopian fasting plate to try a bit of everything.
- Try to find others to eat with, and if not, don’t feel the need to finish what’s on your plate.
- Resist the temptation to wipe your hands during the meal – embrace the messiness.
- Try not to eat too much injeera- this is difficult, you could do what I did (although it’s pretty uncouth) and ask for a fork, although you my be scorned by locals and fellow tourists for this.
See my next post on more about Ethiopian cooking