Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Ethiopian Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Click here to read her column about Ghanaian cuisine, here to read her column about Somali cuisine, and here to read her column about Nigerian cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Ethiopian Cuisine

Ethiopian cuisine is one of the world’s most flavourful cuisines. It is also extremely welcoming to vegans, not just because the cuisine consists of a wide range of vegetables cooked in various styles, but also because two days of every week – Wednesdays and Fridays – tend to feature more vegan, or solely vegan, dishes in some areas due to keeping in accordance with the fasting practices of the  Ethiopian Orthodox faith. This is also evident during the Lent period.

Ethiopians have a strong sense of community which is displayed in their communal style of eating. Dishes are usually served in ways to be shared by friends and family.

The cuisine of Ethiopia cannot be discussed without also discussing the characteristics of how the food is served and eaten. Ethiopians have a strong sense of community which is displayed in their communal style of eating. Dishes are usually served in ways to be shared by friends and family. This is usually present in the form of thick, rich, spicy wat (stews), seasoned sauteed vegetables, sauces, and salads served on large pieces of injera (sourdough flatbread) for multiple people to eat.

An Exploration of Vegan Ethiopisn Cuisine: Beyaynetu
Beyaynetu, a mix of vegan dishes served on injera. Image credit: @ethiopianfoodie. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Injera

Injera is a flatbread made by frying a fermented teff flour batter on a hot pan or skillet. It is soft and spongy when cooked making it perfect for absorbing and holding flavour. This flatbread is not only dipped into sauces or used to lift dishes to one’s mouth. It is also used to line a gebeta (metal serving platter) acting somewhat like a plate on which food is dished and eaten. To eat the dishes served on the injera, one would tear off bits of injera from its edges, dip them in the sauces or scoop the sauces with the injera, using the bread as cutlery, before eating them. However, some cooks serve additional rolls of injera for people to start with before they begin eating the “plate” on which their meal is served.

To eat the dishes served on the injera, one would tear off bits of injera from its edges, dip them in the sauces or scoop the sauces with the injera, using the bread as cutlery, before eating them.

As an alternative to injera, amulcho, a flatbread made from a batter consisting of the fermented root (wassa) of the enset plant, as well as other less traditional or untraditional flatbreads (such as pita) which were introduced to Ethiopians during the historical trades with other nations, are eaten.

Berbere Spice blend. Image credit: @asmaraspice. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Flavour 

The flavours of Ethiopian food are influenced by combinations of indigenous ingredients with those acquired from the historical spice trades between Ethiopia, Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean nations. Some of the spice blends, sauces, and seasonings common to Ethiopian cuisine are berbere, mitmita, awazi and da’ta.

Berbere is the most popular spice blend and it is found in almost every Ethiopian stew. It is a mixture of warm spices such as chilli powder, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, and garlic, as well as other herbs, spices, and aromatics. A berbere blend usually consists of a mixture of 20 or more herbs, spices, and aromatics.

Mitmita is second in popularity. It is usually made from spicier chillies to that used in berbere. In addition to the ground chillies (which are usually birdseye/piri piri chillies), it contains, cloves, cardamom, and salt. However, some cooks add ginger, cinnamon, and cumin to their mitmita blends. It is traditionally used as both a rub for seasoning ingredients prior to cooking or as a condiment to add both heat and flavour to dishes. It can be rubbed into meat substitutes prior to grilling, roasting or frying.

The flavours of Ethiopian food are influenced by combinations of indigenous ingredients with those acquired from the historical spice trades between Ethiopia, Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean nations.

Awazi is a paste made from combining berbere with oil (usually olive oil) or water, and Ethiopian wine or whiskey. It is usually served as a condiment with meals. However, it can also be used to season or add heat to dishes before they are cooked or served.

Da’ta is a chilli topping made by combining pulverised chillies with herbs or spices. It is made in either a red variety (from red chillies and spices) or a green one (from green chillies and herbs). The green variety tends to offer less-heat than its red version. Da’ta is especially used to add some heat and additional flavour to the less-traditional, western-inspired, or completely non-traditional dishes served in Ethiopia, such as pasta dishes.

An Exploration of Vegan Ethiopian Cuisine: vegan yetsom beyaynetu
Spicy jackfruit, sambusa, tofu tibs. Image credit: @azlavegan. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Wat

Wat refers to stews in Ethiopia. They are usually started with a base of sauteed purple/onions followed by an oil and spices such as berbere. Each variation of wat is named after its main ingredient. For example, shiro wat is chickpea stew, atkilit wat is vegetable stew, misir wat is red lentil stew, dinich wat is potato stew and so on.

Shiro wat is one of the most consumed dishes in Ethiopia. It is probably second to injera, which is served with almost every meal. Shiro wat is a smooth thick stew made from a mixture of chickpea and broad bean flour (for example, most gram/besan flours) with onions, garlic, and berbere. Both vegan and non-vegan versions of shiro exist. The non-vegan version is vegetarian due to butter being used in place of the olive oil used in the vegan version.

A range of vegan-friendly wat dishes can be found served as parts of yetsom beyaynetu – a vegetarian mixed platter that gives people the opportunity to sample more dishes than they otherwise would with single meal orders.

Misir wat is another popular vegan-friendly stew made from lentils cooked with onions, other aromatics, berbere, cardamom and other spices. It is similarly made to Kik wat (split pea stew) which, if made as kik alicha, is a non-spicy stew as ground turmeric would be used to replace the heat of the chillies in berbere thereby offering a flavourful, but non-spicy alternative to the more common stews.

A range of vegan-friendly wat dishes can be found served as parts of yetsom beyaynetu – a vegetarian mixed platter alongside sauteed vegetables such as gomen (kale), fresh vegetables in the form of a salata, such as a timatim salata (tomato salad made with tomatoes, onions, chillies, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil) and sils (a spicy tomato sauce made from roasted onions, tomatoes and berbere). The yetsom beyaynetu gives people the opportunity to sample more dishes than they otherwise would with single meal orders.

An Exploration of Vegan Ethiopian Cuisine: Teff Injera
Teff Injera. Image credit: @ethiopickitchen. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Day Starters

Ethiopian cuisine does not feature a lot of traditional breakfast foods. However, it does contain a few such as kinche, fit fit (also known as fir fir), fatira, chechebsa, katenga and genfo

Kinche is an oatmeal-like breakfast dish made from cooking cracked wheat, barley, Ethiopian oats, or a mixture of all three, in boiled water or, to stay vegan, plant milk, and a bit of salt. It tends to be flavoured using a spiced clarified butter known as niter kibbeh which can be veganised using a suitable vegan butter in place of the more conventional dairy version.

Fit fit is a dish made from the previous day’s leftovers. It consists of leftover injera soaked/marinated overnight in leftover wat or berebere sauce then torn into bite-sized pieces and served soft and cool.

Chechebsa, which is also known as kita fir fir, is fried bite-sized pieces of kita bread (a flaky bread) seasoned with berbere and served with a side of a sweet syrup and yoghurt for a contrast of flavours. 

Ethiopian cuisine does not feature a lot of traditional breakfast foods. However, it does contain a few, some of which bear resemblance to oatmeal or unmixed fruit smoothies.

Katenga is somewhat like chechebsa. However, it is not fried, it is made with injera (which is sometimes toasted) and instead of cutting it into bite-sized pieces, it is served whole or cut into triangles similar to pizza slices.

Genfo is a slightly sticky firm porridge bade from barley, Ethiopian oats, teff and bula flour (which is a flour made from the enset plant). For a vegan version, it is eaten with spiced clarified vegan butter and berbere.

In place of the more western breakfast smoothies, Ethiopia has spris. Spris is a stack of individually blended thick dollops of fruit layered on top of each other, then finished with a squeeze of lime juice and an optional spoon of sugar. An example of one of these unmixed smoothies could be one made with a bottom layer of blended mango followed by a layer of blended avocado, a layer of blended papaya, and a layer of blended kiwi.

An Exploration of Vegan Ethiopian Cuisine: Spicy tofu tibs
Spicy tofu tibs. Image credit: @azlavegan. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Turning heavily non-vegan tibs to vegan

Tibs are a non-vegan Ethiopian dish that vegan Ethiopian cooks have been able to veganise using the meat substitutes available today. To make vegan-friendly tibs, chunks of a preferred meat substitute are fried in oil or spiced clarified vegan butter with purple/red onions and served with fresh green vegetables, injera, green chillies (optional) and berbere sauce. These meat substitutes can also be used to make vegan versions of the non-vegan wat dishes thereby further expanding the, already wide, variety of vegan-friendly Ethiopian dishes.

Recipe

Here is a delicious easy-to-follow misir wat recipe by Gueli Fornetti (Vegan Chef Gueli).

Vegan Misir Wat by Gueli Fornetti

Click here for the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Ethiopian Cuisine

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