Ethiopia is globally renowned for famine and thus its lack of food. Yet Ethiopia is often described as the land of bread and honey.
A study in subsistence farming suggests Ethiopian food based on living off the land. Grains such as millet, wheat and particularly teff, a tiny round grain that flourishes in the highlands of Ethiopia, are prominent in their cooking.
Injera, a sour pancake-type bread made with teff, forms the centrepiece of many Ethiopian meals. In fact, injera is much more than simply the bread for the meal; it is also used as the tablecloth, crockery and cutlery. The injera is laid over the table (like a tablecloth), and portions of stew are piled on top of the bread in order to soak up the juices. Mouthfuls are torn off, used to scoop up the main dish, rolled into a cigar shape and eaten.
The national dish of Ethiopia is a spicy stew called wat (or wot). It can be made with beef, chicken, lamb or goat. During religious fasts the wat is made with pulses such as chickpeas and lentils. The primary ingredient that characterises every wat is berbere. Berbere is a hot red paste made up from varying herbs and spices and always contains hot red (cayenne) pepper and fenugreek.
Doro (chicken) wat, is further enhanced with boiled eggs and niter kebbeh, a clarified butter mixed with spices. This clarified butter (similar to Indian Ghee) is a handy store cupboard item that is used in many facets of Ethiopian cooking.
A milder stew served in Ethiopia is the alecha. It is made with many of the same ingredients as the wat, but the berbere is replaced by green ginger, giving the soup a milder flavour.
Other dishes that you can expect to find on the injera include lab, an acidic white curd cheese similar to Greek fetta flavoured with herbs, and kitfo, a version of steak tartare that is served as the dessert. Generally the meal is finished when not only all the stews and are eaten, but when the tablecloth (the injera) has been finished too.
The sweetener in the Ethiopian diet is honey, collected by ancient beekeeping techniques. Honeycomb is wrapped in the injera and served as a treat, complete with the young honeybee grubs inside. Tej, a honey-based wine, may also be served at the beginning of the meal as an aperitif. While coffee, Ethiopia’s prime export, is served at the end of the meal, and is also sweetened with honey.