Ethiopian is one of the world’s truly great cuisines. Its dishes are exquisitely spiced, and hearty yet delicate, reflecting the bounty of the unique climate and cultural influences of the country, yet the food is often overlooked as ‘goo’ or ‘gack’ in the popular imagination.
Despite their equatorial latitude, the highlands of Ethiopia feature a semi-arid Mediterranean type climate. Thus, vine culture foodstuffs such as olives, tomatos, and garlic, and spices familiar from Middle Eastern and Italian cuisines, such as cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom abound. In addition to the similarity of climates and foodstuffs, the people of the highland region also share an ancient cultural and ethnic heritage with the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and this is still evident in the cuisine. However, Ethiopia’s tropical location also allows the cultivation of spices such as ginger, mustard, turmeric, and hot peppers, flavors that are typically associated with Asian cuisines. Ethiopian food, therefore, features a unique blend of these culinary worlds.
The staple grain Ethiopia is teff, and ingera, a unique, thin spongy bread made from it, forms the base of most meals. Ingera requires three days to make, and involves fermenting the teff dough and letting it slowly soak in water. The result, if done properly, is a moist flatbread of a bluish-grey hue that tastes of hearty, earthy undertones.
A typical meal will feature stews, or wot as they are called, to be picked up with the ingera by the hands. The wot can be based on chicken, beef, or lamb, or better yet on the hearty beans grown in Ethiopia, namely red lentils “yemisr”, brown lentils, chick peas, and yellow split peas “shiro”. Meals are generally served on a large, common platter lined with ingera and topped by the various stews.
One common type of wot is deep red in color and features a sauce based on berbere, a powder of dried hot red peppers. The hot pepper is balanced by cinnamon, cumin, garlic, ginger, and a hint of tomato. These berbere based sauces are usually for stews of beef, lamb, or red lentils.
Another common wot is bright yellow in appearance, and is flavored with turmeric, ginger, onion, and cardamom. This flavor combination is typically used with chicken or yellow split peas. In addition, there are dishes in which mustard is a dominant flavor, such as a concoction of pureed chick peas, vaguely reminiscent of hummus, or a spicy dish of brown lentils with a wasabi-like flavor.
The vegetables commonly utilized in Ethiopian cuisine include collard greens and carrots. Most restaurant meals will feature a dish of each of these. The carrots are usually stewed until soft in tomato and cinnamon, while the collard greens are often steamed with hardly any other flavoring added. Traditionally, the sautee base for Ethiopian dishes is either olive oil or ghee, or both.
Ethiopia has an ancient beer brewing tradition, and the beers are quite good. A popular beer is St. George Beer, which is actually brewed in the Washington, DC area according to Ethiopian recipes. Harar Beer, on the other hand, is actually imported from Ethiopia. Both are outstanding. There is also a traditional Ethiopian wine, made from fermented honey, which is very sweet and good as an after dinner drink.