Ethiopia has some of the world’s most ancient history, culture, and topography. While most other African countries came under colonial rule, Ethiopia has remained an independent country since its inception.
Ethiopia’s unique and ancient cultural practices are a fascinating testament to triumph and conservation. Even if you’re unable to visit this ruggedly beautiful country, you can still experience a key aspect of Ethiopian culture by trying its delectable cuisine.
Perhaps the most famous culinary contribution Ethiopia spawned is the almighty coffee bean, which continues to be Ethiopia’s primary export good. But, coffee aside, Ethiopian food offers a flavorful and healthy variety of stewed meats, vegetables, lentils, and grains.
Similar to Indian food, Ethiopians consume food with their hands, using their famous sourdough flatbread known as injera to capture mouthfuls of hearty stews. In recent times, Ethiopian restaurants have gained popularity in the United States.
Popular Ethiopian Food
If you’re new to this ancient and wonderful culinary culture, I have compiled a list of the most popular Ethiopian food you should try during your next trip to an Ethiopian restaurant.
An Ethiopian take on beef tartare, Kitfo is a minced raw beef dish that originated from the Gurage people.
Kitfo consists of minced raw ribeye beef that is infused with flavor from a classic blend of Ethiopian spices known as mitmita and an herb butter known as niter kibbeh.
Kitfo is an incredibly flavorful dish with a unique texture that is soft like pate yet grainy.
If the thought of raw meat doesn’t appeal to you, you can also request Kitfo to be cooked lightly as a rare meat delicacy.
To do this, simply ask for Kitfo leb leb. Kitfo usually comes with white rice and other vegetable stews.
If raw beef is too much of a stretch, you can always venture back into your comfort zone with a hearty and vibrant Ethiopian beef stew called Tibs.
Beef stew is a favorite dish for a comforting meal that tastes better the longer it sits. Hopefully, you’ll have the self-discipline to take home leftovers!
Tibs is made with cubed beef sauteed in niter kibbeh (clarified herb butter) with ginger, garlic, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, herbs, and berbere spices.
Berbere spices are a famous Ethiopian spice blend of chili powder, fenugreek, cardamom, and clove. This hearty beef stew’s rich, savory, and aromatic flavor is delicious, complex, and even better the next day.
Perhaps the most popular Ethiopian food on this list, Doro Wot, is a spicy, slow-cooked chicken stew.
As Ethiopia’s national dish, there are multiple variations of Doro Wot, including the substitution of beef for chicken. I liken the coloring and richness to a Mexican chicken mole.
The key techniques for authentic Doro Wot are a long cooking time and the super spice Berbere spice blend.
Doro Wot uses bone-in chicken thighs and breasts sauteed with garlic, ginger, lemon juice, niter kibbeh, yellow onions, and homemade berbere.
The cooking liquid is a mix of chicken broth and Tej, which is Ethiopian honey wine. Doro Wot is then topped with a few hard-boiled eggs.
Ethiopians love their meat, but their food is equally popular with vegetarians. So when I want to experience the same flavor and heft from meat stew with a plant-based dish, I order a healthful plate of Azifa.
Azifa is an Ethiopian lentil salad that is a popular dish during the religious period of Lent, when most Ethiopians refrain from eating meat.
It consists of cooked green lentils tossed with lime juice, a mixture of fresh bell peppers and hot peppers, diced red onions, and Ethiopian spices.
Azifa is naturally vegan with a bright flavor and complex texture. It’s a cold dish that is both light and filling. I love the healthful simplicity of this dish, which I can easily create at home.
Chechebsa is an Ethiopian breakfast dish that is a mix between frybread and crepes.
Also known as Kita Fir Fir, Chechebsa is a simple, savory Ethiopian pancake that gets torn up and fried in clarified herb butter and berbere spices.
The pancakes are a simple flour and water mixture that gets infused with fat and flavor during the frying process.
I like to eat Chechebsa hot off the frier, mixing in various mixed vegetables like onions, bell peppers, and sliced mushrooms.
You can feature Chechebsa as a side dish for heavier meat stews, using the soft frybread instead of injera to soak up simmering liquids.
Yet another famous breakfast dish, Enkulal Firfir, is Ethiopian spiced scrambled eggs.
Scrambled eggs may sound like a basic dish, but Ethiopians add a signature zing to their egg scramble with spicy ingredients, herby niter kibbeh, and sauteed veggies.
Enkulal Firfir starts with a sautee of tomatoes, red onions, and jalapenos peppers in niter kibbeh, then adds simply seasoned scrambled eggs.
The eggs are light and fluffy with a nice bite of sauteed veggies. You can pair this dish with Chechebsa.
I like to use injera to eat Enkulal Firfir to add a tangy flavor to my savory eggs.
If you love hummus and other creamy, hefty bean dips, then you’ll love Ethiopian Shiro, a garbanzo bean spread.
Instead of using the chickpeas themselves, Shiro uses chickpea flour, making for a slightly waterier spread.
Shiro powder is a mix of chickpea flour, dried onion, and dried granulated garlic.
Shiro traditionally consists of Shiro powder mixed with water and sauteed with ground chilies and berbere spices, fresh garlic, and diced onion.
Shiro is a flavorful stew, appetizer, or garnish. I like to serve it with sauteed leafy greens and injera. It’s a filling, healthy, and protein-packed snack or side dish.
Injera is the famous Ethiopian flatbread served with any meal and used as a makeshift spoon to absorb flavor and scoop up all the different savory stews on your plate.
In fact, a lot of times, a thin layer of injera is placed over the entire plate and then topped with each stew.
Injera is unlike any other flatbread you’ll encounter. It’s made with Teff flour, an indigenous Ethiopian grain.
Teff is gluten-free and thus doesn’t rise like wheat flour flatbreads. A unique aspect of injera is that it’s fermented, causing the bread to have a sour flavor and an interesting sponge-like texture.
I love the sour flavor it adds to soft stews. Plus, its spongy texture soaks up every last bit of stew on your plate.
Fuul is a pan African favorite and a staple in North and East Africa and the Middle East. For example, Egypt touts Fuul as its national dish.
Fuul is a fava bean stew that combines cooked fava beans with onion, garlic, oil, cumin, chili pepper, lemon, and parsley for garnish.
What stands out to me most with Fuul is the savory cumin flavor that evokes a more Middle Eastern taste.
Fava beans are large, flat, oval-shaped beans with characteristic heft, a subtle flavor, and tons of important nutrients.
Fuul is a popular dish for vegetarians and vegans and is spicier in Ethiopia than in Egypt. I love it over rice or injera.
Genfo is a savory Ethiopian porridge made with either barley or wheat flour.
A far cry from oatmeal, Genfo combines barley or wheat flour with water, constantly stirred to form a thick porridge that is then molded into a sort of Bundt cake shape.
The porridge mold has a circular opening that acts as a receptacle for an Ethiopian chili oil sauce made with clarified butter, chilies, and sunflower seeds or flax.
The inside of the Genfo mold soaks up the sauce, and you eat it with a fork or spoon.
It reminds me of a savory flan or tofu in terms of texture.
We’ve covered a cold lentil salad, but in my opinion, lentils taste best in a comforting hot stew. Therefore, I include one of my personal favorite Ethiopian dishes, Messer Wot, a delicious, silky, red lentil stew.
Messer Wot is made with red lentils, berbere spice blend, sauteed onions, garlic, ginger, tomato paste, and water.
Red lentils offer rich color and a distinctive flavor, enriched by the strong aromatic ingredients and sweet tomato paste.
Messer Wot is simple, filling, comforting, and healthy. I like to eat it over rice, but Ethiopians sop it up with injera.
Sambusa is the African version of an Indian Samosa or an Argentinian empanada.
Sambusa is popular all over Africa, from Uganda to West Africa, and with good reason! Who doesn’t love savory, fried meat or veggie pastry?
Sambusas are triangular wheat flour pastries, traditionally stuffed with lamb or beef meat, minced onions, garlic, and seasoning, then fried in vegetable oil.
While meat sambusas are the standard in most of East Africa, Ethiopians are known for their lentil stuffed sambusas.
I’m partial to the lentils and vegetable sambusas because they’re lighter and spicier than the meat versions. They’re usually served with a green herby dipping sauce.
Popular Ethiopian Food
- Doro Wot
- Enkulal Ferfer
- Meser Wot
Ethiopia’s culinary bounty provides a vast selection of spicy, flavorful stews, flatbreads, porridges, and stir-fries. The best part about Ethiopian food is that you get to sample multiple dishes, using spongy injera to cradle each flavorful bite.
Whether you want to try your hand at Ethiopian cooking or you’d like an authentic Ethiopian dining experience, you can use my list of popular Ethiopian food to create a delicious and varied buffet.
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