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Introduction to Ethiopian Food: Dishes and Customs

Ethiopian food

A communal plate of Ethiopian food (photo: T.Tseng)

In my opinion, Ethiopia is one of the top contenders for the best food in the world.

Not only are the stews and sauces powerfully rich and delicious, but the style of communal eating and sharing also encourages a strong culinary bond.

After you've read this brief introduction to Ethiopian food, you'll know everything needed to appreciate and enjoy this exotic African cuisine.

Injera staple

Injera bread

Traditional Ethiopian Foods


The foundation of Ethiopian food is injera, the staple, and main filler.

It's made from the little-known grain of teff, that comes from a grass that is exclusively grown in the Ethiopian highlands, and parts of Northern Africa.

Teff flour is mixed into a batter, fermented for a few days and then cooked in the shape of a massive pancake.

It has a spongy texture and a slightly sour taste, reminiscent of sourdough bread.

The flatbread is then rolled into pieces and eaten with various curries and vegetables.

Serving Ethiopian Food

Ethiopian meals are commonly served off a communal platter.

The standard procedure is to lay out an entire circular round of injera on a metal plate and then scoop the colorful array of dishes on top of the initial blanket of injera.

Everyone then hovers around the plate with their roll of injera, breaking off bite-size pieces and dipping them into the delicious sauces and stews.

When the food off the top is finished, it's fair game to start eating the base (that first piece of injera) that has sopped up all the tasty flavor.


Berbere is the Ethiopian version of curry paste.

It's made from a combination of fragrant ingredients that usually includes onions, garlic, ginger, chili, salt, paprika, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamon, pepper and sometimes fenugreek.

The result is a thick paste that forms the underlying base of flavor for many Ethiopian dishes.

Shiro Wat

Shiro Wat

A few of my favorite Ethiopian dishes

Shiro Wat 

Chickpeas are mashed into a paste and mixed with a heavy dose of berbere sauce and Ethiopian clarified butter to form a paste that's just packed with flavor.

Key Wat

Cubes of tender beef are marinated and made into a thick stew with a lovely spice to it.

A bit of key wat with a handful of injera is the ultimate bite to cherish.


Ethiopia's version of steak tartare is a combination of raw beef, seasoning spices, and a splash of Ethiopian butter.

The thinly sliced meat melts in your mouth.

Derek Tibs

I think every country in the world has a version of roasted meat.

Ethiopia's is charbroiled with peppers, onions, and oil to make it sizzle on the edges.


This vegetable dish is made from collard greens and onions that are simmered until soft, mixed with a few mild spices, and served alongside the more flavorful stews.

Ethiopian Tej Wine

Ethiopian Tej wine

Traditional Ethiopian Drinks

Honey Wine – Tej

It has a sweet bite, and the times I've had it, it reminds me of a fruity cocktail, but much better.

A homemade bottle of Tej goes incredibly well with an Ethiopian meal.

Ethiopian Coffee

As the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia takes its brew seriously. You won't be drinking that weak instant stuff.

They roast the beans black, brew in a small clay pot, and serve the coffee thick and chocolatey.

If you have the chance, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a great experience.

In the middle of roasting the coffee beans, the server will bring the pan around to allow you to take a sniff.

After the coffee beans are finished roasting and the coffee is brewed, the server will pour it into small cups on your table.

As you sip on your fantastic Ethiopian coffee, your nose will be graced by the aromatic scent of burning frankincense that often accompanies a coffee ceremony.

Of course, the country of Ethiopia is the best place to eat Ethiopian food, but restaurants are starting to sprout up around the world.

I know in the United States the cuisine is available in every major city.

The next time you see an Ethiopian restaurant, go check it out and let me know what you think!

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:


Monday 9th of December 2013

My favorite restaurant when I was a college student was an Ethiopian place near Columbia U. I loved the communal experience with my friends. Later, I discovered a few good Ethiopian places in L.A. - but there are none where I live now. And I'm getting a craving for it!


Tuesday 10th of December 2013

I was first exposed to Ethiopian food in Washington, DC. Lots of restaurants there, especially in Adams Morgan.

Yidnekachew Kassa

Thursday 21st of November 2013

It is good to seep people are talking about Ethiopian food. Dear all; there are a lot of things that forced you to come to Ethiopia apart from the Traditional foods. Ethiopia as a country; has more than 3000 thousand years history. If you are lucky to come to Ethiopia to enjoy with the traditional food and hope not to forget visiting historical places, birds and wild animals unique to Ethiopia .Because you will be amused when you see the origin of mankind also.

Meron Asfaw

Wednesday 24th of July 2013

I eat Ethiopian food on a daily basis.

Nandita Amin

Sunday 30th of December 2012

Just about to leave for Ethiopia in 4 hours and found your post when I will be very useful and will try some of what you recommend ..... many thanks for your suggestions.

lara dunston

Sunday 7th of August 2011

Nice intro. Not yet been to Ethiopia, though dying to go - the best Ethiopian meal we had was in Cape Town, and it was just so incredibly tasty. Very different to poor Janet's experience, which reminds me of my first trip to Bolivia around, eek, some 15 yrs ago, when I ate a hell of a lot of godawful purple potatoes.


Thursday 11th of August 2011

Purple potatoes is very delicious.:)

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