Want to learn about Ethiopian food? Looking for Ethiopian recipes? Read Yohanis Gebreyesus’s guide.
Yohanis Gebreyesus trained in Lyon and worked as a chef in California before opening a restaurant in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. His cookbook, Ethiopia, is out now (£30, Kyle Books).
Food is seen as feeding the soul, as well as the body, in many different cultures. In Ethiopia, however, it fulfils another, distinct, purpose – it conveys positive human energy. This is manifested in a powerful local saying, ‘enebla’. In Amharic, the country’s official language, enebla translates as ‘let us eat’ but it is also an invitation to share and show respect for one another.
For instance, Ethiopia’s staple food, injera – a spongy, gluten-free flatbread that (literally) forms the base of most meals, with food placed directly on it instead of a plate – is used in a way that invites more than one pair of hands to a meal. Manipulating injera is sometimes dubbed ‘dancing with fingers’ (guests apply the flatbread over stews then dip and roll it to form a ‘goursha’ – an injera bite that combines various stews, or ‘wat’, from a platter).
Yet despite this commonality there is also great diversity. Ethiopia is large and the country’s cuisine is influenced by its distinct climates and geography. From the Danakil Depression of Afar (more than 120 metres below sea level) to the high plateaus that cover two-thirds of the country, Ethiopia’s different landscapes produce different ingredients. The terrain also generates knowledge that helps communities, whether that’s using goat skin to cool water in Afar or burning specific plants to extract edible salt in Gambela.
Ethiopia was never colonised but the legacy of trading with Asian and Middle Eastern countries, particularly Yemen, added spices to its dishes. Occupation by the Italians in the 1930s is another factor that has shaped the food. For the most part, however, Ethiopian cuisine has largely been left alone, its staple recipes handed down from one generation to the next.
The country is also, of course, one of the world’s largest coffee-producing countries (it is where the coffea arabica plant originates). Yet Ethiopia exports less than half of what it grows. Coffee is drunk copiously across the country and, in a sign of enebla, never alone. ‘Buna tetu’ – ‘come drink coffee’ – is a communal tradition.
Yohanis shares his Ethiopian-style roast chicken. He says: “This modern take on roast chicken highlights one of Ethiopia’s signature spices, nigella. Cooks often use ground nigella seeds in stews that also contain the berbere spice blend. However, when used as the dominant seasoning, nigella’s nutty, earthy notes take centre stage and combine sublimely with black and white sesame seeds.”
What to eat in Ethiopia
Popular in Arba Minch, a town about 300 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, this quick fish dish is full of snappy flavours and textures. Asa means ‘fish’ and lebleb means ‘lightly cooked’ (a reference to the vegetables, which should be crunchy).
Mashed fava or broad beans might be the national dish of Egypt but it is also hugely popular for breakfast in Ethiopia. In the Middle East it often comes garnished with olive oil, parsley, lemon and garlic but in Ethiopia it gets mashed into onions and topped with eggs, yogurt and chopped jalapeños.
Beg siga wat
A popular dish to prepare on religious festivities or birthdays, this spicy lamb stew traditionally uses pieces from both the front and rear legs of the animal.
Pumpkin (duba) is grown, and sold, across the country. This spicy stew is usually served as part of a spread of vegetable dishes but also makes an excellent side dish for chicken, meat or fish.
These barley flour bars are often referred to as ‘local chocolate’ but don’t expect them to be sweet (this is a cuisine virtually free of sugar). Some cooks like to add cardamom, cloves or black pepper.
Words by Yohanis Gebreyesus. Photographs by Peter Cassidy. Buy Ethiopia here (£30, Kyle Books).