A guide to plant-based Ethiopian cuisine.
Ethiopian is my all-time favorite type of cuisine. I became addicted to it about 20 years ago and I've been tracking it down anywhere I go ever since. I have yet to eat it in Ethiopia (one day!) but I've still done a great job at eating it all over the world.
So, why is it so great? Well, it's amazingly delicious. And when I say amazing, I mean ah-ma-zing. Slow-cooked, superbly spiced, colorful vegetables and lentils simmered to perfection. Fresh, healthy, and plant-based. It's a vegan or vegetarian's dream meal.
And the best part? It's served on a sheet of bread (like a plate) and then you eat it with your hands, using the bread (like a scoop). The bread is called injera and is made of teff grain, a staple grain of Ethiopia. It's a spongy, fermented, tangy-tasting sourdough that's naturally gluten-free. Injera ranges in color from light to dark, depending on the grain quality, but the color differences only really mean less or more tang in the flavor.
Injera is made in giant pancake-like circles, up to 20 inches wide. It's thin like a crepe, and porous on one side, so you use that side to pick up your food and absorb the sauces, while your fingers hold onto the flat backside of the bread (and don't get messy).
Technically called the Yetsom Beyaynetu, or the vegetarian fasting plate, this vegetarian meal actually came to be because Orthodox Ethiopians don't eat meat or dairy products on Wednesdays or Fridays (in addition to several more scheduled fasting periods throughout the year), so since they're eating a vegetarian diet pretty regularly, it has to be quite delicious and nutritious for everyone.
The spices are what really sets the food apart. The main spice is called berbere, and is a mixture of garlic, onion, red chili peppers and more, all sun-dried and then ground into powder. It's savory and pretty mild. A spicier version, called mitmita, has hotter peppers and more spices such as cardamon, cumin and ginger, so it packs a flavorful punch.
Outside Ethiopia, it's usually just called the vegetarian platter and that gets you anywhere from about 6 to 12 different wats (stews) served on a huge round tray, covered in an equally huge piece of injera, with extra injera rolls as backup, and usually a house salad, too. Also, vegans may have to specify to ensure vegetable oils are used instead of butter in cooking.
Exactly how many wats you get, what's in them, (and even the spellings of the words) all slightly differ from restaurant to restaurant, but here's some of the 10 most popular that almost always make an appearance.
kik alicha: yellow split peas, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, jalapeños, spices.
dinich alicha: potato, carrots, onions, spices.
misser: red lentils, red peppers, onions, berbere spice.
shiro: chickpeas, onions, garlic, peppers, berbere spice.
keysir: beets, onions, spices.
fosolia: green beans, carrots, onion, spices.
gomen: kale and/or collard greens, onion, garlic, jalapeños, spices.
tikel gomen: cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, jalapeños, peppers, turmeric, spices.
eggplant tibs: eggplant, onion, tomato, ginger, garlic, berbere spice.
timatim fitfit: injera shreds, onion, jalapeños, chili, tomato, pepper, spices.
A vegetarian Ethiopian platter is basically a huge, satisfying, flavorful, gluten-free vegan meal packed with plant-based protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, that you get to eat with your fingers!
And, in Ethiopian restaurants in Holland, you'll drink your right beer out of a coconut. Eat with your hands and drink with your hands! What's not to love?! Also: definitely don't miss the coffee. It's a coffee-lovers dream and an utter delight for all the senses.