What’s Ethiopian cuisine like in a nutshell?
Injera, a spongy fermented pancake, is the staple food for most Ethiopians. Spicy stews with meat, pulses or vegetables are served on top of the injera for everyone at the table to share – as a rule Ethiopians do not eat alone. And Ethiopia is the home of coffee!
What’s the current food trend in Addis Ababa?
Currently Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are fasting for the two months of Lent. Fasting means no animal produce, although some people eat fish, and no alcohol, so a delicious variety of vegetable dishes is available everywhere and they are often more appealing to Western palates than the meat-heavy non-fasting dishes. The season has just passed for small, sweet, red local plums (known as prims!) and fresh raw chickpeas popped from the pod, sold from wheelbarrows on the street.
What local food is not to be missed?
My favourite dish is called bozena shiro – buttery, spicy, garlicky stew made of ground chickpeas with chunks of beef, served bubbling in a clay pot... yum. Fresh and unadulterated juice is widely available – ask for a spriss and you will get a rainbow striped glass with some or all of the following: guava, papaya, mango, pineapple, strawberry and even avocado, with a lime on the side. Just make sure you ask them to hold the Vimto, which is unaccountably added in some places. Coffee, of course, and tej, (mead or honey wine), can be delicious – try it in old and dilapidated Addis Ababa restaurant where it is served in traditional test tube style beakers.
Which local food might I want to steer clear of no matter how much locals
Ethiopians are famously – or notoriously – passionate about raw meat. Kitfo comes minced, like steak tatare, with spiced butter, curd cheese and wedges of enset, or false banana, (and injera needless to say – no meal is complete without injera). Non-locals can ask for their kitfo cooked or lebleb (half-half). Terai sega, on the other hand, is definitely not for the fainthearted: usually served at weddings, you are handed chunk of totally raw beef, fat and all, a knife and pile of powdered chilli to dip it in. Speaking personally, injera served with more injera on top – firfir (scrambled) in a spicy sauce or with chunks of fresh (tibs) or dried (qwanta) meat – can be too much of good thing, especially for breakfast...
What to bring home from my trip?
As much coffee as you can carry: the best in the world and extremely cheap. If you get really obsessed – and many people do – you can buy the whole kit for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which involved roasting green beans on your own charcoal burner before crushing them with spices and brewing them up in a beautiful clay coffee pot or jebena. You will have to pick your own grasses and flowers to strew on the floor before you serve it.
Which cuisine features most strongly in your city?
Addis Ababa is growing rapidly, so new cafes and restaurants are popping up everywhere. All kinds of cuisine are represented from many Chinese, Italian, Indian and Arabic places, to Georgian, German and British Jamaican!
Which is/are your favourite gourmet addresses?
BUDGET: Breakfasts are generally delicious in Ethiopia – try inkulal sils, scrambled eggs with tomato; special fuul, beans with various toppings, in Sport Café 2 on Debre Zeit Road; or chechebsa, spiced fried flat bread with honey and yogurt, in Yeshi Buna near Urael. Chocolate doughnuts from Saay Pastry on Bole Road are legendary (not necessarily for breakfast).
AFFORDABLE: Various European social clubs have excellent restaurants, notably the Armenian, Greek and Italian clubs, in often stylishly old-fashioned surroundings (the Italian Club has a giant fascist mural as you walk in). Ajanta, a south Indian restaurant in Bole Rwanda, is very popular, especially for the dosas and massive thalis.
BREAK THE BANK: The most expensive places in Addis Ababa are the restaurants in the ultra-luxe Sheraton, and Castelli’s (see below). Although they are extremely pricey for Ethiopia, many Western visitors would not think so, unless they really hammered the wine list.
What’s Addis Ababa’s attitude to food?
Well, there are very many people who don’t have enough of it and malnutrition is a huge problem, especially for people affected by HIV/ AIDS. Price rises for basic goods, such as sugar and teff (the grain mainly used to make injera), hit even the relatively well-off. On the other hand, inexpensive local restaurants mean that eating and drinking out is not only for the rich and a growing moneyed class, especially returnees from the diaspora, is fuelling a boom in cafes and restaurants.
Where to shop for food?
High quality local fruit and vegetables are easily available from local grocer’s stalls and small shops and butchers can supply you with amazing beef that would cost a fortune elsewhere for very low prices. There are many supermarkets, with the venerable Bambi’s leading the pack for otherwise unobtainable local or imported goods – mushrooms, chocolate, cream cheese, pork products (neither Muslims nor Orthodox eat pig meat, so it is not common), etc. There are increasing numbers of small-scale producers of gourmet goods – organic jams and chutneys, Italian style cheeses, micro-brewed beer, tofu, unusual breads – but they can be hard to track down.
Which area is best for food – where to browse for restaurants while on the
Bole Road, one of the main thoroughfares, is among the smartest and richest areas of town, with easily the biggest volume and variety of places to eat and drink. However, all over town even very small and unprepossessing-looking cafes serve delicious coffee from (often ancient) Italian espresso machines and good plain cakes. The Piassa area has many fantastic historical cafes, such as Tomoca and Enrico’s. Local restaurants will give a friendly welcome to a foreign visitor and many are excellent, but in small places communication might be difficult as menus (especially in English) are rare.
What’s best avoided?
Sanitation and hygiene standards are unfortunately generally low – in a cheap place the toilets can be unspeakably disgusting. Water quality varies around the city so drinking tap water and eating salad is probably best avoided. What are the big names in the restaurant scene? Castelli’s has been described as the best Italian restaurant in Africa. Run for more than sixty years by the same family and frequented by diplomats, UN staff and older European educated Ethiopians, the atmosphere is formal and the food is rich, heavy and amazing. By Western standards it’s not cheap but reasonable, but locally it’s extremely decadent. The Bagersh brothers own a business empire in Addis Ababa, including coffee, bookshops, publishing and cafes, as well as Serenade Restaurant in the Amist Kilo area. It serves delicious imaginative Arab-influenced food in a beautifully converted old house, and is always full of white people.
What are the most reliable restaurant guides for your area?
What’s Up Addis is a free monthly listings brochure by the above mentioned Bagershs with a list of eating places and phone numbers. There are unintentionally funny restaurant reviews in Fortune, one of the weekly English language newspapers, with a section on sanitation, which should tell you something.
What to be aware of when dining out?
Losing your temper or shouting is an absolute no-no in Ethiopia, so even if you are not happy keep your cool and keep smiling. Learn even five words of Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language, and everyone will be delighted. Not many people smoke, especially Orthodox Christians, so be sensitive about lighting up. Tip everyone and be generous.
This Culinary City Snapshot was kindly provided by and published with the permission of Sarah Howard, a reader of this website, who lives and works in Addis Ababa.