Depending on the location you call home, some cuisines can be hard to find. And that means that if you have the chance to either dine at an Ethiopian restaurant or are invited to a friend’s house for an authentic dinner, you might not know what to expect at the table. This quick guide includes etiquette tips when dining on Ethiopian cuisine and the most common foods you’ll encounter.
Even though “family style” isn’t unique to Ethiopia, it’s a defining aspect that is taken to a whole other level when you compare the concept to other cultures that also eat this way. When many Americans picture family-style meals, they see people sitting around a table, doling out portions of food with serving forks or spoons onto individual dishes from serving plates on the table. In Ethiopia, family-style means everyone is using their hands to eat directly from the same dish with no individual plates or cutlery.
Don’t Be Impolite
Just because you’re eating family-style by hand doesn’t mean there aren’t rules to Ethiopian dining. In Ethiopia, the left hand is considered unclean. As a result, you’ll rarely find an Ethiopian person eating with his or her left hand. If you’ve been invited to eat at an Ethiopian friend’s house or to a restaurant and want to be culturally polite, use your right hand.
Of course, hygiene is important, so a meal begins with all diners washing their hands. And you can wash your hands afterward as well. Likewise, even though family-style is the traditional dining method, don’t reach across the dish to grab bites of food opposite you. Stick to the food that’s directly in front of or adjacent to your seat.
Injera serves as the base for most Ethiopian meals. But what is injera? Injera is a spongy flatbread that is a fixture in any meal. Typically, all of the main and side dishes are placed on a single large flatbread known as injera. It’s not uncommon to see multiple dollops of the same sauce, side, or main dishes so that each diner has equal access to the various options. Diners rip off a piece of injera and use it as a scoop for small bites. The bread is slightly bitter, but it also acts as the lining for stews to soak up the juices. Injera is a staple that can be found at any meal throughout the day. So, what main and side dishes can you expect to find on top of injera?
What is wat? Puns aside, wat is an Ethiopian curry and is typically quite spicy. It can be used as a marinade for any kind of meat. So it’s not surprising to find doro wat (chicken curry), bere wat (beef curry), or beg wat (lamb curry).
Every cuisine has a holiday or celebratory dish, and in Ethiopian cuisine, that option is tibs. Simply put, tibs is sautéed meat and vegetables, and it can range from mild to spicy depending on your preference. But it’s important to note that any dish featuring meat will have the food cut into smaller portions to make it easier to eat with your injera.
Up until now, you might think Ethiopian food isn’t vegan-friendly. But you would be wrong. Shiro is chickpea stew and is naturally vegan. The dish, like many others in Ethiopian cuisine, is spicy. You’re most likely to see shiro served during major holidays. But vegans should always ask before eating shiro — especially at someone’s home — as some people use clarified butter as an ingredient.
If you’ve ever had steak tartare, kitfo is the Ethiopian equivalent of this dish. However, unlike the western iteration, kitfo is lightly cooked and heavily spiced with mitmita (a chili powder-based blend of spices) and niter kibbeh (a clarified butter and spice combination) marinade. If the idea of eating very rare beef isn’t appealing, you can ask for it to be fully cooked.
Almost every cuisine has its own form of libations, and in Ethiopia, that’s tej — a honey wine with a history as old as the Bible. Tej is usually home-brewed, so flavorings can vary depending on what each household prefers. But the base ingredients include gesho (hops), honey, and water.
For people who need a cup ‘o joe to make it through the day, Ethiopian coffee is considered the best you can find in the world. Ethiopia is known as the birthplace of coffee with a history that goes back to the 10th century. Not only is the coffee delicious, but the brewing ceremony is one that you don’t want to miss. Whether you’re invited to a friend’s house or go to a popular restaurant, don’t skip this opportunity.