Ethiopian cuisine celebrates the joy of eating in endearing ways. I found myself travelling back in time on a culinary journey through the African country. By Vikas Plakkot

Perched on a low wooden stool inside a restaurant in the northern Ethiopian town of Axum, I’m enthralled by the eskista performance unravelling in front of me. It features intense shoulder movements synced with folk tunes. In the foreground, a well-dressed man digs into a large plate of food to tear off a portion of grey flatbread, rolls it in meat stew and feeds his partner. As she gobbles it down, a smile spreads across her face. This act of feeding someone with your hands is called gursha, a way of expressing love in Ethiopia and it’s no surprise that it features food.

In Ethiopia, eating is an art form, a communal exercise whose centrepiece is the large sourdough bread injera. The pancake lookalike is made of teff, the planet’s smallest grain, which Ethiopians have grown for eons. Spread around the large injera are a host of dishes ranging from spicy curries to leafy greens. I spy minced meat, a large chilli with kachumbari filling, a chickpea stew and even some roasted lamb. Shunning all notions of restaurant etiquette, I shove my hands into the platter, invoking the Malayali in me. The dishes vanish in swift succession, as I call for more injera to wipe out the remaining veggies.

Ethiopian Food

That’s all it takes to relish a meal in this country — a well-made injera, good company and soiled hands.

Oh So Spicy!

On my very first afternoon in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s unassuming capital, I make my way to the 2000 Habesha Cultural Restaurant. This widely recognised outlet serves all the classic Ethiopian dishes, accompanied by sheesha, black coffee and soulful local music.

The only dish I order is doro wat, thick and spicy chicken curry simmered in a blend of spices and cooked with Ethiopian butter. In some parts of the country, whipping up a delicious bowl of doro wat is said to be the test that every to-be bride has to undergo to win the right to marriage. The key ingredient is the berbere, a mix of spices and herbs that finds a place in many local dishes.

Ethiopian Food

When the food arrives, it tugs at memory strings: the dining room of our ancestral Kerala home, where grandma’s dosa and chicken curry arrived in a similar fashion. I quickly ration out the chicken pieces between me and my partner and mark my territory on the injera, drawing from childhood memories.

We wolf down the meal in a jiffy, pinning the ravenous appetite on our weary journey — fully aware that the food on the plate is to blame.

Vegan Love

Sitting in the back of the taxi that picked us up from the Axum Airport, I start talking to our driver, Getachew, who waxes eloquent on the rich history of the town dominated by Orthodox Christianity. Getachew tells us that the capital’s residents may have put their faith behind them, but in Axum, we would be turning back our clocks.

“Lent has started today, so you will not find any meat or dairy in our meals here,” he remarks. Most Ethiopians turn vegan for the 55 days preceding Easter. Being a meat lover, I’m not exactly stoked. But it takes me just one meal at Lucy Restaurant in the town centre to shed all my inhibitions.

We dive right in and ask for a vegan platter called beyaynetu, which in Amharic means ‘a bit of all types’. It contains myriad vegetarian dishes piled on the injera: shiro wat (chickpea stew), misir wat (red lentil curry), gomen (collard greens), key sir (beets and carrot stew), salata (tomato onion salad) and duba wat (pumpkin stew). The riot of flavours is just as titillating as the colours on the plate.

Ethiopian Food

I step out of the restaurant with a newfound love for vegan cuisine. Later, I will realise, in retrospect, that this is the finest plate of food I consumed in Ethiopia. I will also learn that vegan cuisine isn’t limited to the lent season, but Ethiopians consume it through the year.

Regional Varieties

A week into devouring platters and a massive overload of injera, I begin craving something different to break the monotony. I’m back in Addis Ababa, seeking cuisines from specific regions, curious to understand what lies beyond the wall. On the top of this pile is the cuisine of the Gurage zone, an arid mountainous region in the South popular for kitfo — cubes of beef cooked in a blend of spices.

Our RIDE (Ethiopia’s version of Uber) cabbie graciously takes us to Yimana Kitfo, which specialises in Gurage cuisine. I explain our desire to eat beyond the regular Ethiopian fare to our waiter, who curates a large platter for us. The injera is replaced by kocho, a thick flatbread made of fermented starch. The kitfo is cooked to medium (leb leb) and comes with a side of mitmita — dried red chillies mixed with cardamom, cloves and salt. Two pieces of deep-fried crispy fish, asa koroso, adorn the centre of the plate. And for the first time in Ethiopia, a shiny silver spoon is placed next to the food.

Ethiopian Food

Sensing our confusion, the waiter demonstrates the act of eating a Gurage meal. He holds the flatbread in his left hand, uses the spoon to pick some of the kitfo, dips it in the mitmita, spiced butter and spreads it like jam on the kocho. I take a bite, as if I were eating a pizza slice and my mouth is full of fresh flavours, deliciously alien to the tongue. The fried fish is consumed like finger food, its crispiness reminiscent of a french fry. We stuff our faces for an hour, content at having discovered a different facet of Ethiopian cuisine.

Wine Or Kerosene?

Looking for something to wash down all the food with, I notice what first seemed like orange juice sitting in a flask right out of Hogwarts’ potions class. The waiter catches me staring and promptly brings over two flasks to our table. “This is tej, our honey wine. Try it, very good!” he says with a gloating look on his face.

I pick up the flask like a glass when he stops me and shows the “right way” of holding it. For a moment, I feel like I’m in Bordeaux, taking a French wine-tasting class. The wine itself, however, immediately transports me back to my Ethiopian reality. For a split second, I feel the sweetness of the honey. But, a rather earthy, fuel-like taste follows, with a whiff of varnish. Hiding my grimace, I take another sip and give a nod of approval to the waiter who instructs me to “drink up” before leaving. If it wasn’t a bright afternoon, I’d have probably gone through with it, but I pass on the opportunity. My head feels funny already.

Birthplace Of Coffee

If there’s one item I can never say no to in Ethiopia, it’s coffee. There are no third wave cafes or gourmet roasters, but coffee is celebrated with aplomb in every house, restaurant, and cafe in the manner it has been since it took birth here in the early ninth century.

Coffee is brewed in a ceremonial manner, typically by a woman, at least three times through the day. Strolling through the streets of Addis Ababa, Axum and Mekele, I come across countless women sitting by rows of metal cups, carefully watching their coffee brew over coal in a black claypot (jebena). I sit with them in spite of having downed a dozen cups already, just to watch the art unfold. The coffee is almost always consumed black, with loads of sugar, typically served in a tiny cup featuring intricate floral art, and some roasted barley or popcorn by the side. As someone who likes his coffee stained with a bit of milk, I find my paradise at Tomoca — a 1953 establishment that is unequivocally the finest coffee maker in the country. There’s only one type to order, a macchiato — coffee with a dash of foamed milk. There are no seats here, just standing tables to peacefully enjoy a cuppa with your friends while watching the world whizz by.

Ethiopian Food

I stand by the window, looking out at a street in Addis Ababa, watching a group of youngsters sit by the street and scoop out injera from their communal plate. I take a sip of the macchiato and find myself knocking on the doors to heaven, when I notice one of the guys place a morsel in his friend’s mouth. Eating is indeed the finest expression of love in Ethiopia.

THE DETAILS

GETTING THERE

Ethiopian Airlines operates direct flights from Mumbai and Delhi to the capital, Addis Ababa, daily. It also offers massive discounts on internal flights to those who arrive in the country with it.

STAY

Addis Ababa

Radisson Blu: An upscale accommodation in the heart of the city. Doubles from INR 14,000.

Axum

Sabean International Hotel: A clean, mid-range hotel with WiFi and other amenities. Doubles from INR 6,000.

EAT & DRINK

Addis Ababa

2000 Habesha Cultural Restaurant for a classic meal.

Kategna Restaurant, Bole, for the best vegan platter and doro wat.

▪ Yimana Kitfo for a Gurage meal; Megenangna, near Zefmesh Mall.

Tomoca Cafe for the best cup of coffee.

Axum

▪ Antica Traditional House for beer, local food, and cultural performances; 0914-172003

▪ Lucy Restaurant for the best vegan plate in town; 0914-768399

TOURS

Go Addis Tours runs a three-hour food tour through Addis Ababa that serves as the perfect introduction to Ethiopian cuisine. From INR 4,500 per person.

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