Ethiopian Food: The Real Deal

Let’s get right into it.

The first three months in Ethiopia I lived with an Ethiopian family as a part of my assimilation into the life and culture of Ethiopia. I have gotten the full repertoire of Ethiopian food.  Let me just say it is the real deal!  My Ethiopian mom has given me a culinary foundation that I will be able to carry with me not only here in Ethiopia but back with me to the United States. 

I’ll do my best to describe what eating here is like.  Today’s food installment is going to focus on authentic dishes as prepared by my Ethiopian mom.  My future food musings  will focus on how I have taken what I have learned and put that into practice.  In other words, how I am sustaining myself. 

Back in America I wouldn’t call myself a picky eater but there are plenty of dishes I don’t enjoy.

Shrimp, gross, I don’t want a full creature in my mouth.

Eggplant, disgusting. Olives, nope.

I’m very lucky to like everything I’ve been served in Ethiopia.

Disclaimer: I’ll do my best to describe the dishes but some details and spelling may be a bit off.

The backbone of every Ethiopian dish is oil, berbere and injera. In almost every meal a combination of these three ingredients are utilized. Oil you know. Berbere is a spice, it is ground up chili peppers into an orange, very spicy powder. Injera is the staple of any meal in Ethiopia. It is like pita but rubbery. It is made not from wheat but a crop called teff. Ethiopians use injera instead of forks or spoons. Rip off a piece, grab some food. There is an art to it few Americans have mastered. I try tearing a piece and it’s the size of a penny.  Mastery must also include ripping and eating all with one hand.  When I asked my class their favorite food 3 out of 4 students responded with injera. They eat it with breakfast, lunch and dinner, sometimes alone, and love the stuff. Personally it’s okay, I see it as a conduit or utensil to eat my food, alone it’s sour and has an odd texture.

Breakfast is, of course, where I will start since breakfast is considered the best way to start the day in America and Ethiopia.  This is the only similarity between cultures when it comes to food. 

Marka:  Most Americans hated Marka. It is a wheat powder mixed with water and berbere. I enjoy it.  Almost like a spicy porridge. My host mom, Burtikanni, bragged to other host parents at the host parent celebration that I liked Marka, I have had few prouder moments.

Fir Fir:   This is as Ethiopian and depressing as a meal comes. It is just chopped up injera from the day before mixed with some spices and maybe an onion. Yes, it is eaten with injera. I had it a few times and ate all of it, but not a fan.

Egg:  Common for breakfast but pretty expensive.   

Fuehle (fool-e):   One of my favorite Ethiopian dishes, period. I would have it for lunch and dinner if possible. It is beans, partially ground up with garlic. It’s also eaten not with injera but bread, a huge plus. Sometimes it has eggs in it, called Special Fuehle.

Pasta:   A common breakfast item in Ethiopia. Because of Italian occupation (not colonization, Ethiopians are extremely proud to never be colonized, and rightfully so) pasta can be found everywhere, both spaghetti and rigatoni.

Lunch and dinner. Often times Ethiopian housewives will cook a large lunch and serve the same thing for dinner. I’ll lump them in together.

Shiro:  This is the most common Ethiopian dish. It is ground up chick peas mixed with oil and berbere. Eaten, of course, with injera (everything but Fuehle is eaten with injera).  It is red in color, and the texture is watery. Depending on the day it will contain beans or potatoes, often nothing more. The taste is of oil and berbere, mostly oil. In most shiro’s the yellow bubbles of oil are still visible as it’s ladled onto the injera. Ethiopians love oil.  Shiro is filling for being so watery but I always like to have something more. Ethiopians though see it as a full meal.

Dorowatt:  This is the dish served on holidays. It has chicken, so it’s expensive to make. “Watt” is an Ethiopian term used to signify the consistency of a dish. A soupy, stew with oil and berbere (I’m sure Ethiopians would describe it differently). That may sound dissatisfying but I promise, they’re delicious. Dorowatt has bits of stripped chicken and hardboiled eggs. It is wonderful except the eggs, I’ve never been a huge fan of hardboiled eggs, weird texture. Although, I have put aside my feelings many times and wolfed down hardboiled eggs when given. It’s a sign of respect to get the egg. I feel cruel eating the chicken and it’s eggs in the same meal. I don’t want to eat an animal and its possible descendants in the same meal. 

Tibs:  How Ethiopians eat pretty much all meat besides chicken. Goat, sheep, and cow. It is just chopped up into bite sized bits and cooked in oil, plain and simple. This allows for a lot of variety in the tibs I’ve gotten. Sometimes there’s goat ribs, sometimes the beef is diced in bits, sometimes it’s roasted over fire. All delicious, my favorite Ethiopian dish.

Dinecha:   For the Ethiopian New Year, September 11th, my family slaughtered a goat. I woke up in the morning walked into the living room and saw a skinned goat haunch on the table. I got a mound of tibs for breakfast. I was a happy man. For lunch and dinner I got some chopped up meat, it looked a little funny. White bits that looked like a pale, shag carpet mixed with other bits that had a jello consistency. Definitely, not tibs, not cooked enough and an earthy, mushroom taste. Hmm, maybe it was mushrooms I thought to myself. My family speaks no English so I couldn’t ask them. I snapped a picture and ate it, a little odd tasting but it’s this or nothing. The next day I showed my language teacher, Abiyot, the picture. He chuckles, looks up at me and says “you ate this, I don’t even like dinecha.”  Well – Turns out dinecha is goat small intestine, kidney and liver. I have a new one-upper for weirdest thing ever eaten.  Ignorance is bliss.

Bavonetti: This is my most common meal at a restaurant. In Lalo it is 10 birr (50 cents) and fills me up. It consists of a Shiro or something similar in the middle of a spread out roll of injera (about the size of a large pizza dough) surrounded by whatever they have cooked. By restaurant or day it varies. Some common items are stuffed peppers, cabbage, potatoes, beets and carrots. Uncommon additions I’ve had are peanuts, pineapples and french fries.

Tagabino: It is a thicker shiro served in a small cooking pot with onions and garlic. I prefer this over Shiro.  It is much more filling albeit more expensive at restaurants. The garlic resounds in Tagabino, one of the more enticing Ethiopian dishes.

This is the John Keller explanation of Ethiopian food. There’s definitely more food I didn’t mention and ingredients I didn’t know exist let alone how to convey them to you. This is a basic overview that hopefully gives you a better idea about the national dishes served here. A few months ago I would have laughed at being offered unknown meat or ground up chick peas, now I eat it on a daily basis and enjoy the heck out of it.  Next food installment will give you some insight into how I have been fairing on my own. 

Here is a picture I totally stole from my mom’s friend, Shannon, but it gives you a good idea of Bavonetti and common Ethiopian foods. I have not be able to get my pictures through to post due to connection issues.   

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2 thoughts on “Ethiopian Food: The Real Deal

  1. Great descriptions. When you return, you will have to cook for us as we enjoyed our meal very much! Just like a media specialist mom, giving credit to the original post😀

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  2. I love the description of the meals, the foods, and your rendition of what it was like for you. Your personality adds personality to the meals and food. Keep it up. it is great entertainment to read this. I hope (I wish) you were (are) journaling or somehow holding onto these experiences. What a story you have to tell I love you lots….. Gram

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