Embark on an Exploration of Ethiopian Food
Located in the Horn of Africa, the country of Ethiopia lies in the easternmost area of the African continent. Trying Ethiopian food can introduce you to new flavors from other parts of the world that can expand your gluten-free eating horizons.
Components of Ethiopian Cuisine
Most Ethiopian cuisine features whole foods and mostly gluten-free and vegan dishes. Vegetables are seasoned with spicy sauces and may occasionally include meat. Other common staples in Ethiopian cuisine include grains, legumes, and roots or tubers.
Common grains used in Ethiopian cooking include teff, millet, and sorghum, with teff being the most predominant. While wheat and barley are also used in Ethiopian cuisine, there are many options that do not rely on these gluten-containing grains.
Vegetables that are a staple of Ethiopian dishes, including onion, carrot, tomato, cabbage, and collard greens. Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and field peas such as black-eyed, purple hull, and crowder peas, are front and center in stews and side dishes. Roots and tubers favored in Ethiopian cooking include potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, and enset, a plantain-like plant. Fruits like oranges, pineapples, bananas, and papayas, while commonly grown in Ethiopia, tend to be limited in native dishes due to their high expense.
While meat dishes do exist in Ethiopian cuisine, many Ethiopians avoid eating pork and shellfish for religious reasons. Still, you might find chicken, beef, lamb, goat, and some fish in some Ethiopian dishes. Spices are an indispensable component of Ethiopian cuisine, with ginger, cumin, and fenugreek influencing the flavors of Ethiopian meals, as well as a traditional spice blend called berbere (see below for more details about this spice blend).
Ethiopian Dining Culture
Enjoying a traditional Ethiopian meal involves eating with your hands. Meals are often eaten from a communal serving plate instead of on individual plates. In lieu of silverware, injera – an Ethiopian flatbread – is used to scoop from a serving platter of food.
The Ethiopian dining experience is one that is built upon fellowship, camaraderie, and respect. A traditional custom called gursha may take place and is when a guest is hand-fed food, typically a piece of meat wrapped in injera. This gesture is a symbol of high honor, and it is customary to both accept with gratitude and return the gesture. You could experience gursha as a guest in someone’s home if they follow Ethiopian customs or dining in an Ethiopian restaurant.
Traditional Ethiopian Dishes
Here are some of common components of Ethiopian cuisine.
Injera (Sourdough Flatbread)
Injera is perhaps the single most featured food in an Ethiopian meal. As mentioned above, Ethiopians traditionally eat with their hands and use injera to scoop up food. This spongy, pancake-like flatbread is made from teff, an indigenous grain to Ethiopia, and can serve as a utensil or even as a plate. Teff is an ancient grain that comes from a grass native to the Horn of Africa and has been a staple food crop for the region. Teff is naturally gluten-free, high in protein, fiber, iron, and Vitamin B6.
Is injera always gluten-free? No, not always. Some restaurants may combine teff flour with a more economical flour such as barley or wheat. Not only does this change the consistency of the injera, making the flatbread heavier, it also makes a usually gluten-free flatbread into a product containing gluten.
When eating out, confirm with the restaurant’s staff that their injera is made solely with teff. You may also want to call ahead to ask. With a little advance notice, some restaurants may be willing to make a gluten-free injera if they don’t already have it as an option on their menu. If you find that a restaurant makes both, be sure to confirm that cooking surfaces and baking utensils are not shared to avoid cross-contact with gluten.
While injera and teff are common in an Ethiopian meal, there are also other traditional foods made from barley so they are not gluten-free and should be avoided. Some examples are an Ethiopian snack known as kolo, a variety of breads and baked goods (kita, dabo, genfo), a side dish akin to a rice ball (tihlo), and some beverages (tella, shamet, korefe, shorba).
Berbere is both the name of a chili pepper and a prominent spice blend used in Ethiopian cooking. Much like Indian curry spice or garam masala, there is no one true berbere spice blend recipe as every cook may create their own unique mix. Variations often include a dozen ingredients or more, and berbere recipes can be regarded as family secrets.
Berbere blends can consist of chili and cayenne pepper, black pepper, fenugreek, ginger, Ethiopian basil, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves, and may also include cumin, allspice, nutmeg, paprika, onion, or garlic. Berbere may also include spices that are unfamiliar to a Western palate, such as korarima (also known as Ethiopian cardamom), rue (used as a cooking herb or added to coffee), ajwain (a seed similar to caraway), radhuni (a seed with a celery-like flavor), and nigella (also referred to as black onion seed although they come from a flower, not an onion).
Berbere can be added dry into a stew, sprinkled onto roasted vegetables, or mixed with oil to form a paste to rub on beef, chicken, or fish. If the long ingredient list for berbere is intimidating, you can purchase it online or at your local spice shop.
Wat or wot is a spicy, thick stew that may or may not contain meat. Like many hearty stews, wat begins with onions simmered in berbere or niter kibbeh – a clarified butter infused with garlic, ginger, and spices. Lentils, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage are featured in the vegetable version. Slow-stewed beef or chicken can be added to make a very similar stew known as doro wat. When meats are added to stews, it is not uncommon to find the stewed vegetables served along the side rather than as part of the same stew.
Because traditional Ethiopian dishes are served family style, recipes are often made for a larger group of people. A benefit of this type of cooking is that the leftovers can be used in other recipes or meals. One example of this is fir-fir, a breakfast dish that combines torn pieces of leftover injera rolled in berbere or butter when eaten in its simplest form. Other versions of fir-fir include leftover wat or a combination of fresh tomatoes, peppers, and onions in a quick sauté akin to a breakfast scramble.
Making Ethiopian Food
Do you like to be adventurous in the kitchen? Take inspiration from a different culture and try a few new recipes. Incorporate an Ethiopian-style vegetable side dish (ye’abesha gomen – recipe below) with your weeknight roast chicken. On a chilly night, there is nothing better than a bowl of warm soup. Switch things up with a simple lentil stew (misir wot – recipe below).
(Recipe reprinted with permission from Maya Bar-Zvi, Bastyr University Dietetic Intern, 2018)
2 cups teff flour
4 cups water, divided
¼ teaspoon yeast
- In a large bowl, mix teff flour, 3 cups water, and yeast. Stir to combine. Loosely cover and let sit in your kitchen to ferment, being careful not to place the mixture too close to the stove or oven.
- Let the mixture rest for 24-72 hours to ferment – the longer it rests, the stronger the flavor will be. Some discoloration will occur, and the liquid will develop a very strong odor, this is part of the fermentation process and is completely normal!
- When the batter has fermented discard the top layer and pour off as much liquid as possible. A clay-like batter will remain in the bowl. The batter should have a nutty, sour smell.
- In a small saucepan, bring ¾ cup water to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat and mix in ½ cup of injera batter, stirring to combine. Mix the cooked batter into the rest of the batter, mixing well.
- Add ¼ cup of water to the batter and stir. The mixture will have the consistency between pancake and crepe batter. Add more water if necessary.
- Heat a non-stick skillet or cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Using a ladle, pour batter into pan. When bubbles begin to form at the surface, cover the pan and cook for 4-5 minutes. Bread can be served warm or cold.
Preparation Time: 24-72 hours to ferment, 30 minutes active
Yield: Five 10-inch pancakes
More gluten-free Ethiopian recipes:
Kosta be dench – Rainbow chard and potato stir fry [Eleni’s Kitchen]
Alicha Dub Wot – Pumpkin with Turmeric [Eleni’s Kitchen]
Misir – Easy, Ethiopian Lentils [Black Foodie]
Kik Wot – Yellow Split Pea Stew [Eat Ethio]
Written with contributions from Ashley Judson, MS, Bastyr University Dietetic Intern, 2018