The dishes of an Ethiopian meal may seem strange to most Americans, but they're actually quite simple. Whether you're a guest in someone's home, visiting your first Ethiopian restaurant or traveling in the horn of Africa, knowing this country's main dishes will help you understand how to eat Ethiopian food.
A traditional Ethiopian meal is served on a large, circular sheet of spongy, slightly sour flatbread called injera. This serves as a dish and as part of the meal; knives or forks are not used. One side of the bread is smooth and flat, while the other is porous. The meal begins with the injera laid flat-side down and other dishes placed on top of the spongy side.
To use injera as part of an Ethiopian meal:
- Tear off a piece of injera. In Ethiopia, etiquette demands you do this with your right hand.
- Hold the smooth side against your hand and the spongy side against the food.
- Pick up some food using the injera and put it in your mouth.
This is the standard method for eating almost any type of Ethiopian dish.
Types of Wat
The main part of the meal will often be a type of spicy stew known as wat. Also known as wot or wett, this dish consists of finely chopped onions, spiced butter -- niter kibbeh -- garlic, ginger and a mix of spices called berbere. A main ingredient such as chicken or beef completes the dish. If the ingredient is chicken, this is doro wat; if it's beef, the dish is called key wat. Asa wat is fish stew. Vegetarian versions include yemisir wat, made with red lentils.
Tibs and Kitfo
Other traditional dishes include tibs, a mixture of sauteed diced meat and vegetables. Beef is the most common type of tibs, although a lamb version of the dish, awaze tibs, is also popular. Another Ethiopian meat dish is kitfo, raw or very rare minced beef marinated in spiced clarified butter or niter kibbeh and a blend of spices called mitmita. If the beef is cut into small cubes instead of minced, this dish is called gored gored.
What to Drink
Ethiopian beverages include beer, mineral water, a type of honey wine called tej and, above all, coffee. Coffee is one of Ethiopia's major exports and almost always forms the last stage in a meal. Sip tej carefully; its sweetness can conceal its strength.
Although eating with your hands can seem informal, Ethiopian culture has fairly strict rules of etiquette. One custom that may surprise you is gursa or gursha. This is a gesture of respect and intimacy: one diner scoops up a small amount of food using a piece of injera and places it in a neighbor's mouth. Gursa is a mark of great respect and should not be refused.