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Before even eating a single bite, Ethiopian cuisine is a feast for the eyes. Usually served on a large family-style platter, an array of vibrantly-colored ingredients are dolloped next to one another in what looks like an edible paint palette. The delicious dishes — like spice-infused lentils, lamb, chickpeas, and stews — are best seen as a kind of mix-and-match, tapas-style fare meant to be shared and passed around. Ethiopian food has been around since the literal beginning of human evolution (it’s one of the 10 Oldest Countries in the World), so you owe it to your ancestors to have a bite or two. Here are the most iconic Ethiopian dishes that have stood the test of time.
Injera is the undisputed carbohydrate backbone of Ethiopian cuisine. It’s either at the base of every platter or rolled up on the side, but it’s never far from sight. Made from a local grain called tef, injera is a spongy, pancake-like flatbread that tastes surprisingly tangy and is 100% gluten-free. The true magic of injera is its versatility. It’s effectively your replacement for silverware. Rip off a piece of injera and fold it around a piece of meat, eat it like a tortilla on the side, or mix it into any dish. It’s safe to say Ethiopian food is not Ethiopian food without injera.
For centuries, shiro has been widely considered the most common food for Ethiopia’s lower classes. Recently, however, it’s experiencing a bit of a revival and is now consumed by different kinds of people throughout the world. Made from chickpeas and bean flour (in an extremely laborious process), shiro is a kind of smooth, paste-like substance not unlike refried beans. You’ll find different variations of shiro depending on the economic class. Wealthier families use butter, garlic, peppers, and onions, while others stick to just vegetables and water. Regardless, it’s an excellent vegetarian staple.
Kik Alicha is the Ethiopian take on split pea soup. It’s a creamy bowl of deliciousness that combines flavors of onions and garlic. It’s not usually spicy, which makes it a nice dish to balance out the tangy injera and spicy meat dishes. It’s also usually flavored with turmeric (one of the region’s most important spices), which will give you all kinds of anti-inflammatory benefits.
Often considered to be the national dish of Ethiopia, doro wat is the go-to no-frills chicken stew. It is to Ethiopia what tikka masala is to India. It’s an arduous, time-consuming cooking process that can take up an entire day, and the end product is a deliciously hearty stew full of spices. To give you an idea of the dish’s cultural importance, women who want to marry have historically been required to make doro wat for their fiancé’s family as a demonstration of their culinary proficiency (and apparent worthiness as a wife). Thankfully, things have changed in many modern urban areas.
Tibs is the general term for a meat dish usually served in cubes or small chunks. Stir-fried with onions, vegetables, rosemary, and niter kibbeh (spiced clarified butter), tibs is another staple meat dish always on an Ethiopian menu. When you’re done discovering Where to Find the Best BBQ in San Antonio, tibs should be next on every meat lovers’ culinary itinerary.
As far as breakfasts go, this one is the most common in Ethiopia. Usually made from the previous night’s leftover portions of injera, it’s essentially just stir-fried injera seasoned with berbere (a dark red spice similar to Jamaican jerk seasoning, and the backbone of many Ethiopian dishes). Even though the main ingredient here is injera, it will most likely be served with…another side of injera.
Similar to kik alicha, mesir wat is a creamy soup made from red lentils. It’s rich, it’s spicy, and it tastes like the ultimate vegetarian comfort food. It also makes for an excellent dipping sauce for (you guessed it) injera.
Gomen is a simple and flavorful side dish made from sauteed collard greens. Because collard greens are fairly tough, they can withstand a long cooking process and lots of braising, which gives it that crisp texture. Feel free to throw a dollop of gomen next your meat and lentils, or just dig right into the dish itself with a spoon.
Gomen be Sega
Piggybacking on gomen, gomen be sega is the name for the dish when you combine gomen with a healthy portion of garlic, diced meat, and some extra vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and onions. The meat is usually of the beef variety, but many times you can elect for lamb which is equally mouthwatering. You can’t get much healthier than just meat and vegetables, so if you’re looking to hold back on the carbs, gomen be sega is the way to go.
And finally, the unsung hero of Ethiopian cooking has to be the humble house salad. While not earth-shattering on its own, it plays an important role in providing balance to an otherwise rich, heavy, spice-filled meal. Trading bites between the savory dishes above and a citrusy salad makes a great combo. Salata is usually comprised of chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions, green chiles, olive oil, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt — not unlike the traditional Greek salad (speaking of which, these 7 Scrumptious Greek Desserts are bound to pique your tastebuds interest).