The first thing to know about Ethiopian cuisine upfront—berbere. This is the salt and pepper of Ethiopian food, a complex and fragrant spice mix that is the backbone of many dishes, giving them their distinctive taste as well as their signature red color. While everyone has their own individual method of preparing berbere, it’s typically comprised of red chilies, nigella seeds, cloves, ajwain seeds, onion powder, garlic powder, ginger powder, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, and besobela.
Shiro Wat is a staple dish, something you’ll find wherever you go. Chickpeas are roasted with spices and then ground into powder. This powder is then turned into a thick, creamy stew. The thickness of these stews can vary, from the runny shiro fessess to the thick, caramelized shiro tegabino. For our version, we have cooked shiro powder with onions, ginger, and garlic, topped off with homemade niter kibbeh, a glorious concoction that, unsurprisingly, makes everything better! (Contains dairy; vegetarian, no gluten)
Religion is central to the lives of many Ethiopians, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the concept of fasting foods, a whole subset of dishes that are consumed while abstaining from animal products. Ethiopia is one of the most religious countries in the world, with the majority following Tewahedo Orthodoxy. With 180 fasting days for all observers and up to 252 days for clergy and the most devout, it is no wonder that Ethiopian food can be vegan heaven! Dinich alicha is a dish of potatoes and carrots cooked in an onion and turmeric sauce. Another general note—this cuisine loves onions! Dinich alicha starts off, like many Ethiopian dishes, with onions shivering in oil. Come to think of it, how much wonderful food around the world starts with this exact ritual? (Vegan, no gluten)
This simple dish is another staple—collard greens braised with niter kibbeh and mitmita. The latter is what you might call a close cousin to berbere, a spice blend that is hotter and more orange where berbere is brick red, an export of the Gurage region to the west of Addis. The thing we love most about this dish is that its relative simpleness and few ingredients really allow for the niter kibbeh to shine through. We’ve made our own version of niter kibbeh, butter infused with cinnamon, black cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, nutmeg, turmeric, and oregano. You will remember the taste of this spiced butter for days. (Contains dairy; vegetarian, no gluten)
While you never need to sell us on fresh cheese, we are even crazier about it when it serves to complement all this hot food! Ayib is homemade fresh cottage cheese with a texture similar to ricotta, and is often served as a side dish, helping bring out the flavors of the other food and serving as a refreshing and cooling accompaniment. Traditionally, gomen, ayib, and kitfo (see below) are served together. This cheese is also a testament to the importance of cattle in Ethiopian culture. Cattle farming (and husbandry) are by far the largest part of Ethiopia’s livestock sector (which itself is the largest on the continent). Although dairy is not super prevalent since the zebu cattle breed has fairly low milk yields, ayib is a notable, and delicious, exception. (Contains dairy)
On that note, let’s talk beef! Tibs are THE street food of Addis, small cubes of seared steak served either plain or seasoned, wet or dry, in a porcelain pot called a shekla. Tibs, of course, are not the most adventurous way in which Addis residents consume beef. That honor goes to raw beef, a super common food served in the form of minced varieties such as kitfo (raw minced beef marinated in mitmita and niter kibbeh, similar to steak tartare) as well as whole chunks of steak served with awaze. The folklore goes that when Muslim invaders arrived, the Christian locals developed ways of consuming beef without using fires that might give away their location. Because the Christians were ultimately victorious, it is mainly a celebratory dish, one present for all formal gatherings. For many reasons, including Michigan’s health inspection code, we are skipping that and serving you seared tibs instead— cooked dry with onions, mitmita and niter kibbeh. (Contains dairy; no gluten)
And finally, the pièce de résistance, the queen of the Ethiopian dinner table, a constant presence at every feast—Doro Wat! This is certainly the most famous Ethiopian stew, and the litmus test for any home chef in Addis—what’s their doro like? One of our fondest memories from our time in Addis is the Doro Wat dinner we had with our friend’s grandmother, the preparation starting hours in advance. Traditionally, a chicken is killed and cut into 12 distinct pieces - symbolizing the 12 Apostles - before undergoing a thorough cleansing in lemon juice and water. Onions are caramelized over 3 hours in berbere and niter kibbeh, and then the chicken is added to cook to tender, spicy, saucy perfection. What’s not to love? (Dairy, no gluten)
There is no Ethiopian food without injera. The bread is a source of fierce pride for many, to the point that while visiting our friend in Addis, even home-cooked meals had to be accompanied by injera from her favorite restaurant in town. It is bread made with fermented teff flour and cooked into a large, thin shape. It is often served on a large communal platter, with all other dishes piled on top. This allows you to consume injera in what we think is the best way—scooping up the parts tinged scarlet from the rest of the food, making it into a squishy ball with your hand, and stuffing it into your mouth! Traditional injera is made by fermenting teff grains over the course of several days (the grain is naturally gluten free, so fermenting takes a particularly long time) before it becomes a rich sourdough-like starter. Our version, which uses both teff and regular flour, is more reminiscent of a savory crepe, although no less delicious. (Contains gluten, dairy; vegetarian)
Awaze & Mitmita
Awaze is a spicy dipping sauce, made by whipping up berbere in tej, Ethiopian honey wine. Mitmita, as you know from above, is a spice blend. These are normally served with beef, helping people adjust how spicy and saucy they want their meal. These condiments are amazing with the entire meal, but are particularly delicious with the tibs! (Vegetarian, no gluten)
Bunna and Kolo
No visit to Addis is complete without several locals waxing poetic to you about their coffee, and why would they not? The country is home to the coffee plant (the first cup of coffee was supposedly brewed in the ninth century in the province of Kaffa, Ethiopia), and it’s one of the largest exporters of coffee today. Fun fact—despite massive production, much of the coffee Ethiopia produces is still consumed locally. Does that make Ethiopia the most caffeinated population in the world? Perhaps. While many people now enjoy the more Italianized macchiatos in coffeehouses, the more traditional coffee ritual is alive and kicking. During the ceremony, guests sit in attendance while the host roasts and grinds coffee beans, turning the entire room fragrant. The beans are then passed around so that everyone can smell them. There is a first round of coffee and then two additional ones, each cup meant to transform the spirit, with the final one meant to be a blessing. The process can take many hours, and is made even more delightful with the accompaniment of kolo, a snack of roasted barley with peanuts, sunflower seeds, and berbere, and the burning of frankincense. The frankincense tree is native to East Africa (although Ethiopia is by far the largest producer of the resin) and has a long association with Christianity. As a befitting cap to this meal, we will provide the roasted coffee beans, kolo, and incense, so you can have your own Ethiopian coffee ceremony at home! See the featured recipe for more information (Contains peanuts; vegan, no gluten)
Available at Arbor Farms
Once the drink of the Middle Ages ruling class, tej is now a ubiquitous presence in Addis, and around Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the largest producer of honey on the African continent, and a staggering 80% of that goes towards the production of tej, i.e. honey wine! It takes about a month to make a batch of tej using honey, water, and a species of buckthorn that initiates the fermentation process, and most people buy it from tej bets, or tej houses. Luckily for us, Michigan is home to Seifu Lessanework, who was once the personal butler to the famed Haile Selassie, and is now the owner of the Ann Arbor and Ferndale located Blue Nile restaurants! Seifu’s Tej, produced by Lakewood Vineyards, is now distributed throughout the country.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
If this introduction reads biased, tinted with personal anecdotes and nostalgia, please forgive us. One of our closest friends from college is a born and raised Addis native, fiercely proud of her city and our gracious host when we visited in the summer of 2019.
Where does one begin with Addis? The area surrounding the city is widely considered to be the cradle of humanity—it is here, at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, that the skeletal remains of “Lucy” were found in 1974. Lucy’s bones are the oldest ever found of a human ancestor, and determined to be over 3.2 million years old. While the country of Ethiopia is not nearly as old as Lucy, it is still one of the oldest countries in the world, and home to an even more ancient civilization. Kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen in this land, but it is generally agreed that what we know as Ethiopia was founded in 980 BCE, when the kingdom of D’mt was established. Boundaries shifted, power continued to ebb and flow between tribes and monarchs, and the land was known as Abyssinia until the 20th century, when it became Ethiopia. In the first centuries, it was ruled by the kingdom of Aksum, and it was during this time that Christianity came to the region. Today, Ethiopia is home to the largest Orthodox Christian population outside of Europe (the sect is called Tewahedo Orthodoxy). The ancient churches of Lalibela are a popular destination for both pilgrims and tourists, and Christianity pervades many aspects of daily life — from the concept of fasting foods (foods that you eat while abstaining from meat and dairy) to references in art and music. There is also a sizable Muslim population. The land which is now Ethiopia was one of Islam’s first sanctuaries, with persecuted believers fleeing there from the Arabian peninsula. One of the first converts to Islam and its first muezzin (the caller to communal prayer) was Bilal ibn Rabah, whose mother was Abyssinian.
But what of modern Ethiopia? Perhaps the most important name in this regard is Haile Selassie, founder of modern Ethiopia and introducer of the country’s first written constitution. He was born with the name Ras Tafari — does that sound familiar? A Christian himself, Selassie is considered the returned messiah by some of the Rastafarian faith. The story goes that when Selassie visited Jamaica, the place where Rastafarianism originated in the 1930’s, the country was undergoing a severe drought. Right after his arrival, rain fell. After the Second World War, Selassie’s Ethiopia was considered a model state for the rest of the continent; the Organization of African Unity, a precursor to the African Union, was established in Addis. There was a large intellectual exchange between the likes of Marcus Garvey and the capital city. Ethio-Jazz became a fixture of the musical topography of the country. Unfortunately, much of this progress was undone by the Derg, the brutal communist regime known as the “Red Terror,” which was largely to blame for the 1983-1985 famine.
Today, Ethiopia is the second largest economy in Africa, after Kenya, as well as the second largest population, after Nigeria. It is home to 86 officially recognized ethnic groups, although most people living in Addis are Amhara. Currently, of course, Ethiopia is in the news for a very troubling reason—the civil war that is tearing apart the northern Tigray region and displacing thousands of people. It’s a conflict that goes back many decades into Ethiopian history, and we fear that we have neither the knowledge nor the space to do it justice. We highly encourage you to read more about it using the links in our Additional Reading section.
Ethiopia is one of the only countries in Africa that was spared the brutality and exploitation of European colonization, although it was invaded by Italy during World War II. This exceptionality forms a core part of modern Ethiopian identity, with a pride in cuisine, language, and culture that is inescapable for anyone who visits. And how can they not be proud? There’s the food—insistently communal, unmistakably fragrant. There’s the coffee— the coffee! Take the excellent Ethiopian coffee bean, famed the world over, and add in the espresso culture left behind by the Italians, and what can you get but sheer magic? If there is one thing I cannot forget from our time in Addis, it’s the experience of standing at the famed Tomoca Coffeehouse, among throngs of men armed with newspapers, and sipping the best macchiato I’ve ever had. There’s tej, the honey wine that Ethiopians drink as if it were water. There’s also my personal favorite emblem of Ethiopian culture—the logo of Habesha Beer (habesha being the term for people of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage), which shows a woman with the most shady side-eye a cartoon can muster (look it up!)
Two years later, there are certain things—the unmistakable sound of Ethiopian Azmari music, the smell of berbere, an exceptional cup of coffee—that take us right back to our days in Addis. It is truly a city apart.
Featured Recipe: Coffee Ceremony
Makes 2 servings
You will need a bialetti or similar moka pot (preferred), a drip coffee machine, a french press, or a pot and a sieve
½ cup (~50 g) green Yirgacheffe coffee beans
Water to taste (we recommend using ¾ - 1 cup of water for 50g of coffee, you can used less for a stronger version or more for a more diluted version)
Kolo (provided with Dinner in Addis Ababa; you can substitute with fresh popcorn which is equally traditional)
Part 1: Toasting and Grinding the Beans
(this part is already done for those who ordered Dinner in Addis Ababa)
Place the coffee beans in a small heavy pot over high heat. Cook the beans shaking and swirling continuously until the beans become very dark and begin to smoke, about 5 minutes.
Once the beans are black all over, let them cool on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and then funnel them to a coffee grinder and grind. Traditionally this is done with a mukecha and a zenezena (like a mortar and pestle)
Part 2: Coffee Ceremony
Prepare the room: it’s customary to light the incense before beginning the ceremony, which many believe wards away evil spirits. Unwrap the provided frankincense and place on tin foil before lighting
Pass the ground coffee around, so everyone present has a chance to smell the aroma (normally this would be done as the coffee is roasting)
Prepare the coffee using whichever method you prefer - a moka pot, a coffee machine, a french press, or just a pot with a sieve. In Ethiopia they would use a jabeena, a black clay coffee pot
Pour into small coffee cups, about the size of a double espresso and add sugar to taste (milk is not common)
Enjoy with the kolo or freshly popped popcorn!
This is the first serving, known as abol. Typically the coffee would be brewed three times, getting progressively lighter. The second batch is tona and the last is baraka, considered to be a blessing to those who drink it
Recipes Inspired By:
Yohanis Gebreyesus’ brilliant cookbook Ethiopia: Recipes and traditions from the Horn of Africa is a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Ethiopian cuisine and formed the backbone of our menu
The Daring Gourmet blog continues to be a fantastic source of inspiration
Marcus Samuelsson’s video on how to make tibs!
We tried countless recipes to figure out how to transport injera, and although not traditional, this King Arthur recipe was our favorite
If you’re feeling adventurous and have a week to prepare it, this is a great step by step for authentic injera
Shout out to our friend Hamara who, along with her entire family, were incredibly gracious hosts when we visited
A love letter to Ethiopian Buna
Ras Tafari Makonnen, Armenian orphans, and the birth of Ethio-jazz
More about the current situation in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia