We were already big fans of Ethiopian cuisine a long time before we ever set foot there, and, as excited as we were about the whole trip, there was one thing that slightly bugged us food-wise: if we ate injera every day for a week (or more) how long would it be before we hit our injera threshold and never wanted to eat the sweet stuff ever again? Of course our worries where unnecessary – we ate it twice daily, every day of our trip, and yet our mouths still watered at the very thought of the savoury smell of the berberé spice.
For those who have never tried Ethiopian food, and would like to do so, you will find that many of its traditional dishes are vegetarian and a lot of these are in turn vegan. The vegan diet is well established due to the tradition of fasting, which is observed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians during Advent and Lent, as well as every Wednesday and Friday. Those are the days to seek out the most succulent vegan dishes, as most restaurants offer special fasting options with no meat, dairy or eggs.
Shiro Wot, a spicy chickpea puree, is a common vegan dish found everywhere, as is Mesir Wot, its red-lentil cousin. Ethiopian Lentil Salad is basic but super fresh, with lots of fresh chopped shallots, chiles, jalapeños and basil, while Vegetable Alecha is a gingery vegetable soup favoured during fast. If in doubt, ask if butter is used in the preparation of the dish – some of the vegetarian dishes are seasoned with a spiced clarified butter called Niter Kebbeh. One of the most commonly used spices, which gives Ethiopian food it’s distinct flavour, is Berberé spice. Berberé is actually a spice mix counting up to a dozen spices, and although recipes vary (everyone has their own version, usually passed on from their mom) it usually contains a healthy dose of cayenne and fenugreek, followed by allspice, ginger, cardamom, cloves, paprika, dried garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, and more… the spices are toasted and ground, and the resulting powder can be used dry, or mixed with a bit of water or oil to form a paste. For more detailed Ethiopian recipes that call for vegetables, pulses and an abundance of superfood favourites like flax, garlic and ginger, head over to ethiopianrestaurant.com where you can find inspiration and how-to’s on such things as Telba:
Telba (Ethiopian flaxseed beverage)
1 c Flaxseed
6 c Water
1 to 2 T Honey
Heat a cast-iron skillet over low heat. Add flaxseed and dry roast, stirring for about 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Place flaxseed in a spice grinder and grind to a powder. Sieve into a bowl. Add water and stir. Let set for about 10-20 minutes to allow solids to settle out. Strain into a pitcher. Add honey and chill.
Notes: to make Telba Firfir – Mix telba with torn pieces of injera bread and heat. Serve as a side dish. Extra Notes: Telba is a mild laxative.
The Mighty Teff… not to be confused with The Mighty Stef
We could talk for hours about how much we love injera, the spongy, sourdough-like, pancake-y bread that is the basis for most Ethiopian meals. But to keep it on point let’s just say that apart from delicious, it is, to the utter joy of celiac patients everywhere, also completely gliadin and gluten-free. Injera is made from a cereal called teff, which, although super-tiny (teff means “lost”) also happens to be a nutrition bomb high in protein, calcium and iron. And if you can get your hands on some teff flour you can use it to make gluten-free bread, waffles, piecrusts, batters, or whatever you can come up with. It is important to note that in many Ethiopian restaurants outside Ethiopia, however, a mixture of teff and wheat flour is used in the making of injera, so it is advisable to ask before ordering if you are indeed allergic to gluten. You can browse various lip-smacking recipes like teff polenta, teff pear crisps or mocha teff scones here.
If you are in Addis Ababa and interested in a change from “national food”, as it is referred to, then make a beeline for Serenade restaurant. You should just go there anyway, as it is one of the best restaurants TFL have been to in their whole collective lives (I know that’s stretching it a bit, but if the others ate there too I’m sure they’d agree). On offer is a solid North African and Mediterranean menu – of course with a knowing twist – all made from fresh local ingredients, including the fragrant herb garden in the patio around the restaurant. The vegetarian options are particularly well made: mezze platters, Tuscan vegetable skillet, multi-grain salads with citrus-mint dressing and unusual soups like artichoke or pumpkin-coriander. The desserts are unfortunately not very vegan-friendly, but there are so many that it is worth asking in case one of them is. And if you are vegetarian you can still enjoy the delights of lavender sorbet (they must have read our minds!), cardamom-saffron or Earl Grey ice cream. Serenade – East of Piazza, on a small cobblestone alley off Tewodros St, near Nazreth School, Wed to Sun, tel: 0911 200 072
Fresh juice is a common treat found all over the city, it usually comes in a state of semi-smoothiedom composed of nothing but fresh fruit (mango, avocado and papaya seem to be the most popular) blended in a bit of water. It does usually also come with a good spoonful or two of white sugar lurking in the bottom, so ask for it unsweetened if that’s more up your alley. The mango/avocado combo was our favourite… try it at home and join the ranks of the converted.
Although the country lacks the sort of infrastructure that could make tourism a real economic powerhouse, this is perhaps not such a bad thing for seasoned travellers as the kind of tourism that is to be found is catered to the more adventurous, or to the small, sustainable and community-oriented exploration. Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives is an Addis Ababa based organization that arranges walking tours in the highlands area around Lalibela and provides guest housing with local communities. Prepare for breath-taking views, the best coffee you’ve ever tried, hospitable villagers and many snacks (DID YOU SAY SNACKS?)
The Salayish Lodge & Park is under an hour’s drive from Addis and, although we didn’t get to test it, seems to be well-recommended. Allegedly a “rustic retreat”, it also features a bar and restaurant. So bring your dancing pants as well as your sketchbook.
For shopping, whether it is silk scarves, mangos, mobile phones of AK 47’s, the infamous Mercato is where it’s at. To lower your chances of meeting naughty pickpockets at this giant central market, there are also a bunch of cooperatives and NGO’s who sell quality crafts in small shops: The Former Women Fuelwood Carriers Project generates income for women who earn their living carrying huge piles of wood (up to 50k!) up steep roads in the nearby mountains. The delicate woven shawls and hats are always a good bet, and there is a weaving workshop on the premise – as well as coffee and popcorn. The shop is situated off Entoto road just beyond the Spanish Embassy; there is a sign that says ‘WFC Project’. In the same manner, the Alert Handicraft Shop sells hand-made embroidered crafts (best pillows and cushions we’ve seen in a long time) that support the Berhan Taye Leprosy Disabled Persons Work Group. Shop is off Ring Road, south west of the city centre in the Alert Hospital compound – follow the signs to the canteen.
And lastly… walking around sunny Addis, you are bound to meet many street kids. Although heartbreaking, it is advised to not give them money, or food (which they can exchange for money) because it encourages them to beg, expect handouts, skip school and generally leads to more problems for them and their communities. There is a national charity on Churchill Road called Hope Enterprises where you can buy meal tickets to give to needy children as well as other destitute people – 4bir (€0.16) will buy you 8 tickets, which will each provide a simple nourishing meal at the centre’s canteen. Most children already know the place and will flash you a super-grateful smile: 155 Churchill Road