A guide to flavours of Ethiopia

A guide to flavours of Ethiopia

It's said that Ethiopia was where coffee was born. The aroma of raw and brewed coffee apart, the land is home to varied flavours and cuisines of a myriad sort. Facts point to Kaffa in Southwest Ethiopia as the birthplace of coffee. And coffee is derived from the word Kaffa. Being rich in quality, it is the world’s premium coffee and is exported extensively. Bread and honey too form an exotic part of Ethiopia's revenue-fetching items and are as popular as its coffee. Ethiopians are lavish on honey which is had with every meal.

Ethiopian cuisine is one of the tastiest too. There's nothing bland about it. Teff, one of the smallest grains in the world is farmed all over the country. It’s a fine grain and is smaller than poppy and comes in a variety of colours. The grain was widely farmed well before 5000 BC. Apart from this, barley, wheat, sorghum, dal, chickpea, fava beans, the ensete, a variety of banana exclusive to Ethiopia and gesho, a throny shrub, were the main ingredients that went into most of ancient Ethiopia’s dishes.

Archaeologists have dug up iron implements, kitchen vessels and utensils that date from 1st century BC to 800 AD. What cemented the evidence that they were indeed ancient Ethiopian was the present day fact that Injera, the national food of Ethiopia was made in the very same sort of dishes as the ones that were found buried under centuries of history.

An interesting historical anecdote is the compilation of a recipe book during the reign of the Yekuno Amlak dynasty from the 13th century to the next 700 years. The book, Serato Geber, is thus the history of 700 years of Ethiopian cuisine. A lot of dishes prepared then with poultry, doves, birds and vultures are very much the same in taste and flavour today. The 14th century opened up the land to trade in spices and other condiments. When chilly peppers landed from Portugal, ginger and other roots came in from the west. The European inflow began right from the beginning of the 16th century. This was how pepper, capsicum, red pepper and turmeric found their way to Ethiopia. The county enjoyed warm trade relations with the Mediterranean, West Asian and Asian countries. Ethiopia found itself under the iron fist of Italy’s Mussolini from 1935 to 1946. This explains the strong Italian influence over coffee in Ethiopia.

Traditional flavours

The Injera is the most preferred and the most traditional dish. It's a sour-dough risen flatbread, spongy in texture and quite like the Kerala appam. The grain teff is mixed with water and left to ferment. The grain contains a natural ingredient within itself like yeast which helps it to ferment. It’s cooked in a large vessel. Though it’s pretty large, it’s thin and soft and forms the base for several other mixes laid atop it.

The Injera also happens to be the staple food in Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea.

Berbere is the traditional masala mix of Ethiopia and comprises a mix of spices, leaves, chilly pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, garlic and ginger. Berbere gives an extra fizz to what’s already spicy and jacks up the taste.

Mitmita is yet another masala mix or powdered seasoning. With a mix of chilly pepper, cardamom, cloves and salt, it adds more spice to dishes.

Wat is an Ethiopian stew or curry made with chicken, vegetables, meat and fish. Doro Wat, the chicken stew is made with onions, chicken, boiled eggs and Berbere. The age-old tradition of girls cooking a dish of Doro Wat for their prospective grooms’ family is faithfully carried on to this day. The dish is laboriously made over quite a long period of time.

Vegetable wat is had with beans and chickpea paste mixed with other vegetables like potato, cabbage, carrot and various other spices.

Yet another traditional dish is the Atkilt Bayonetta made with Injera, different vegetable wats, beetroot, salad, spinach, kale leaves and vegetable stock.

The Ethiopian butter Nitter Kibbeh is very much like Indian ghee. Nitter Kibbeh is made by adding shallots, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg to the ghee and heating it over a low flame. Quite often this butter is substituted for oil.

Other dishes

Scrambled egg, onion, tomato and green pepper are served lavishly for breakfast. Feteera ia another egg dish. Eggs are placed over puff pastries, cooked over a low flame and eaten with honey.

Shallots, Berbere masala and beef are mixed to get a dish called Minchet often served with boiled eggs.

Gomen be Sega is Ethiopian spinach with meat. It means vegetables with meat, with the beef or lamb being cooked in Nitter Kibbeh. It’s cooked with collard greens, cabbage, carrot and onions. Kittifo is had with Berbere and mashed and beaten raw meat.

Shiro is a vegetarian dish. It’s a stew made with powdered white chickpea, Berbere and spices. Sils is a tomato stew. Gored Gored has meat cut into cubes, heated lightly in Nitter Kibbeh and made in Berbere sauce. Spris is a fruit juice. It’s a layered fruit serve. Butter fruit forms the base to be topped with mango, papaya, finely chopped lemon, and finally covered with a sweet sauce vinto. Not only is it delicious, but highly nutritious too. It’s a must-have for summer.

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