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Ethiopia - Eating and sleeping
A wide variety of different dishes is available in Ethiopia. Most of them are unique to the country, so it is worth familiarising yourself with their names as soon as you arrive.
To anyone who has travelled elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopian food comes as a welcome revelation. Instead of the bland gristle and starch that is the standard restaurant fare in most African small towns, Ethiopian food is deliciously spicy and you can eat well virtually anywhere in the country. Contrary to many people’s expectations, most of Ethiopia is fertile, food is easy to find and portions are generous and very cheap. You’ll often find that one plate of food – which costs little more than a dollar – will be adequate to feed two.
A wide variety of different dishes is available in Ethiopia. Most of them are unique to the country, so it is worth familiarising yourself with their names as soon as you arrive. The staple source of carbohydrates in Ethiopia is injera, a large, pancake-shaped substance made from tef, a nutty-tasting grain that is unique to Ethiopia and comes in three varieties: white, brown and red. The tef dough is fermented for up to three days before it is cooked, the result of which is a foam-rubber texture and a slightly sour taste reminiscent of sherbet. Injera is normally served with a bowl of wat stew. The ritual is to take a piece of injera in your hand and use it to scoop the accompaniment into your mouth. If you dine with Ethiopians, it is normal for everyone to eat off the same plate.
Ethiopians will often tell you that injera is of little nutritional value. This is not the case at all. Gram for gram, tef supplies more fibre-rich bran and nutritious germ than any other grain, containing 15% protein, 3% fat and 82% complex carbohydrates. This is partly as a result of it being smaller than any other edible grain and having a proportionately larger husk, which is where most of the nutrients in any grain are stored. Tef contains almost 20 times more calcium than wheat or barley, it has two to three times the iron content of other grains, and it is the only grain to contain symbiotic yeast – which means that no yeast needs to be added during the preparation of injera.
There are two main types of wat sauce: kai wat is red in colour (kai literally means red), very hot and flavoured with beriberi (peppers), onions and garlic; alicha wat has a yellowish colour and is generally quite bland. There is a widely held belief among Ethiopians that they are the only people in the world who can tolerate spicy food, so unless you specify what you want you will generally be served with alicha wat. To my taste, alicha wat is pretty horrible, though in part this is because it is too bland to offset the sourness of the injera. If you’re not overly fond of spicy food, order wat misto, which consists of half-portions of kai and alicha wat, sometimes served in separate bowls and sometimes mixed together. Conversely, if you want to spice things up, you can ask for mitmita, a spicy red powder, or awaze, a sauce made from beriberi.
Most wat is made from meat (siga). The most common meat in the highlands is lamb (bege), while in drier areas you will most often be served with goat (figel). Beef (bure) is also eaten, mostly in large towns. In towns near lakes, fish (asa) predominates. I have also come across tripe wat – which is the same as our tripe but pronounced trippy. The official national dish of Ethiopia is doro wat, made of chicken, but this is to be avoided if you are hungry, as it is traditional to serve only a lonely drumstick or wing in a bowl of sauce. Normally kai wat consists of meat boiled in the kai sauce, but you may also come across tibs kai wat, which means the meat was fried before the sauce was added. If the meat is minced prior to cooking, then the dish is known as minje tabish.
Vegetarian wats are served mainly on Wednesday and Friday, the Orthodox fasting days, and can be made from puréed beans (shiro wat), halved beans (kik wat) and lentils (misr wat). Shiro tegamino is an especially delicious thick paste, whereas standard shiro wat tends to have a liquid consistency. The normal dish on fasting days is atkilt bayinetu, which consists of dollops of various vegetarian wats, as well as piles of spinach (gomon), beetroot (kai iser) and vegetable stew (atkilt alicha) heaped discretely in a circle on the injera.
Fried meat (siga tibs) is also very popular in Ethiopia, as is boiled meat (siga kekel). Shakila tibs consists of fried meat served in a clay pot that contains a charcoal burner. Other dishes, found mainly in large towns, are crumbed meat or fish cutlet (siga or asa kutilet), roast meat (siga arosto), steak (stek) and a mildly spicy brown stew (gulash). Then there is kitfo, a very bland form of fried mince, and kitfo special, the same dish but uncooked, which should be avoided purely for health reasons as should kurt (pronounced court), which is raw sliced beef.
A popular breakfast dish, and a useful fallback in the evening if you don’t fancy anything else that’s on offer, is inkolala tibs – literally fried eggs, but more like scrambled eggs, cooked on request with slices of onion (shinkuts), green pepper (karia) and tomato (tamatim). Another common breakfast dish is yinjera firfir, which consists of pieces of injera soaked in kai wat sauce and eaten with – you guessed it – injera. Note that firfir literally means torn-up: inkolala firfir is exactly the same as inkolala tibs, but hacked at a bit before it is served. Also popular at breakfast is ful, a spicy bean dish made with lots of garlic, a refreshing change from eggs when you can find it.
Menus are normally printed in Amharigna script so you will have to ask what’s available (‘Magi min ale?’). As a rule, you won’t understand a word of the rushed reply, so you’ll probably have to suggest a few possibilities yourself. The way to phrase this is to start with the type of meat, or vegetable (prefaced with ye), then the type of dish. In other words, fried goat is yefigel tibs, fish cutlet is yasa kutilet, kai wat made with lentils is yemisr kai wat, and alicha wat made with beef is yebure alicha wat. If all else fails, ask for sekondo misto, which consists of small portions of everything on the menu.
The variety of food at local restaurants decreases during the fasting weeks of Ethiopian Lent, a period that generally occupies most of March and April, since Orthodox Christians will only eat vegetarian dishes during this period. Most non-vegetarians travelling in off-the-beaten-track areas get a bit frustrated by this, whereas vegetarians will find it a good time to travel. It doesn’t affect travellers so much in Muslim areas, nor will it alter the variety of food on offer at tourist-oriented restaurants.
For infomation on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
Chat ceremony is generally a social thing. The idea is for a few people to gather in a room, where you each grab a few branches, pick off the greenest leaves, pop them into your mouth one by one, mush it all up into a cud, chew for a few hours and then, with whatever strength is left in your jaw, spit out the remaining pulp.
Chat is a mildly stimulating leaf that is traditionally popular with Muslims (who are forbidden from drinking alcohol) and is now chewed throughout Ethiopia. For readers who have visited Kenya, it is pretty similar to miraa, though I gather not exactly the same plant (and you see few Ethiopians with the manically glazed eyes I’ve come to associate with miraa-ed out Kenyans).
Chat ceremony is generally a social thing. The idea is for a few people to gather in a room, where you each grab a few branches, pick off the greenest leaves, pop them into your mouth one by one, mush it all up into a cud, chew for a few hours and then, with whatever strength is left in your jaw, spit out the remaining pulp. Ideally, you devote the afternoon to group mastication, then go for a few beers to neutralise the sleeplessness that the leaves induce. The leaves taste very bitter so a spoonful of sugar helps it all go down. Chat has its devotees among travellers, but most will find the effort involved in spending the afternoon chewing themselves into foul-tasting oblivion holds little appeal – especially when all sorts of cheap, pleasant-tasting, no-effort-required alcoholic substances are widely available in the country!
The centre of chat cultivation and chewing is the Muslim town of Harar – at the end of a bus ride in this area it looks as if the vehicle has been overrun by psycho-caterpillars – but you can get the stuff at markets all over the country. It’s not expensive, but it’s worth taking along an Ethiopian friend to ensure you locate the best-quality chat – prices do reflect quality and the youngest leaves are the best.
Sticking with leaves green and mind-altering, it should be clarified that the link between Rastafarianism and Ethiopians is by and large a one-way thing. Smoking marijuana is illegal in Ethiopia and, generally speaking, it is less socially acceptable than in most Western countries. You should certainly not assume that an Ethiopian male with plaited hair is adorned for anything but religious reasons. Basically, if you must smoke dope in Ethiopia be as discreet as you would be at home, if not more so – not only to keep yourself out of jail, but also to maintain the good name of travellers.
Given that the Kaffa province of Ethiopia is thought to be where coffee originated, and the coffee bean accounts for more than half of Ethiopia’s exports, it should be no surprise that Ethiopians are coffee mad.
Given that the Kaffa province of Ethiopia is thought to be where coffee originated, and the coffee bean accounts for more than half of Ethiopia’s exports, it should be no surprise that Ethiopians are coffee mad. The local espresso-style coffee (buna), served with two spoons of sugar, is rich, sweet and thoroughly addictive. Coffee with milk is buna watat. In small towns, sweet tea (shai) is more widely available than coffee.
You’ll often be invited to join a traditional coffee ceremony, in which the grains are roasted over charcoal, ground while the water is boiled, then used to make three successive pots of coffee. It’s not advisable to accept if you’re in a rush or want to get any sleep (it is rude to leave before the third round has been drunk), but you should certainly experience it at least once in your trip. Despite the pomp you might associate with the word ‘ceremony’, it’s really just a social thing – instant coffee holds little appeal in a country where few people have jobs, or even television.
The usual soft drinks – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Fanta – are widely available and very cheap. The generic name for soft drinks is leslasa. The Harar Brewery also produces a non-alcoholic malt beverage (apparently aimed at the Muslim population) called Harar Sofi, which tastes similar to cola and is said to be good for an upset stomach.
A little more surprisingly, carbonated mineral water is bottled locally and is widely available for around US$0.60 per 750ml bottle. It is best to ask for mineral water by brand name, which is Ambo in central, south and western Ethiopia, and Babile (pronounced ‘bubbily’ – not sure if this is coincidence!) in the east. Still water is also available. The major brand is called Highland, and you will often hear roadside children screaming this repeatedly in the hope that you will toss them an empty bottle (which you most certainly should not!). Another (and arguably better-tasting) top brand is Abyssinia.
Ethiopia’s prime soft drink is fruit juice, which is really puréed fruit. What is available depends somewhat on season and location, but the most common juices are banana, avocado, papaya, orange and guava. I highly recommend the avocado, which sounds odd but is delicious with a squeeze of fresh lime and is sometimes layered with grenadine syrup. If in doubt, ask for espris, which consists of layers of all available juices. The result is thick, creamy, healthy and absolutely fantastic. A glass of juice generally costs around US$0.80.
The most popular local tipple is tej, a mead-like drink made from honey (mar) or sugar (isukalama). Mar tej is a considerable improvement on most African home brews, and very alcoholic, but personally I couldn’t get into it on a daily basis. Isukalama tej is entirely avoidable. Tej is not served in normal bars; you will have to go to a tej abet to drink it. A 750ml bottle of tej costs around US$1. Locally brewed beer, made from millet or maize, is called tella. This is similar to the local brew of east and southern Africa, and no less foul in Ethiopia than it is elsewhere in the region.
Acceptable bottled lager is sold throughout Ethiopia. There are several brands, among them Castel, Bati, Bedele, St George, Harar and Dashen. A 350ml bottle of beer costs around US$0.80, with prices varying slightly, depending on where you buy it. Draught lager is available in Addis and quite a few other towns around the country, and it is very cheap. A beer journalist writes: ‘Ethiopia now has a licensed Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, something beer geeks always seek, and it says “Guinness is Good for You” in Amharic on the neck label! Hakim Stout, from the Harare Brewery, isn’t bad, although it’s not really a stout.’ Wine is brewed locally; the result is indifferent but affordable, especially if bought directly from a shop. Imported spirits are served in most bars at very low prices for generous tots.
If you are not particularly fussy, finding a room in Ethiopia is rarely a problem, though genuine tourist-class hotels are limited to major tourist centres. Accommodation at all levels is inexpensive, even by most African standards. Few Ethiopian hotels distinguish between double and single occupancy. Almost without exception, rooms in private hotels will have a bed made to sleep two, and the price of the rooms is the same whether it is occupied by one or two – or for that matter half a dozen – people. Even the most basic hotels in Ethiopia generally have electric sockets for charging mobile phones, digital cameras and similar devices in every room, though you might want to confirm they are working before taking a room in the budget and shoestring ranges.
In the past, most tourist-class hotels were run by one of four government chains, all of which had at least one hotel in Addis Ababa. The Ghion Hotel Group ran all government hotels in the north, the Ras Hotel Group represented the southeast, the Wabe Shebelle Group ran hotels in the south, and the Ethiopia Hotel Group dominated in the west. Nowadays, however, many of the hotels in these chains have been privatised, and there are often newer, equally good if not better private hotels available, especially in major cities. In our listings, many of the former government hotels are no longer listed first, with many of the newer hotels representing best quality and value.
Outside of Addis, few hotels cost more than US$50 per room, and many – especially those in the south and west – are little more than US$20. Most will have rooms with private hot showers and bowl toilets. By international standards, few hotels would scrape much more than a one-star rating; they could generally be described as comfortable but tatty. That said the first thing you will notice when you arrive in Ethiopia is the boom in the construction of tourist-class hotels with newer, better-quality hotels opening all the time. The greatest problem these new hotels face however is upkeep, with many almost falling apart less than a year later. Note also that most (but not all) hotels will call a room with a double bed a single room, and a room with two singles a double.
In recent years the long-serving Bekele Mola Hotel Group, which has several hotels in southern Ethiopia, has dropped its standards significantly. This one-time popular private hotel group once had some 12 properties in the chain but due to lack of maintenance and financial difficulties several of the hotels have been forced to close, most recently the hotel in Langano. Of those that remain, most are now no better than shoestring hotels with their offering Moyale, in our view the worst in the chain. The marked exceptions however are the hotels at Adama (which remains the best), Arba Minch (which wins points mostly for its location) and Robe (which is still very reasonable). All of which have good rooms with private showers and bowl toilets for around US$6–15.
The vast majority of budget hotels in Ethiopia are straightforward local places with spartan furnishing, cell-like rooms, communal toilets and either communal showers or else no showers at all.
In larger towns, there are generally one or two budget hotels of superior standard. These are distinguished from the mass of shoestring places by having en-suite rooms (rooms with private showers and toilets, often referred to as self-contained in Ethiopia and elsewhere in east Africa) and also by being slightly more expensive. These hotels appear to be geared primarily to relatively well-heeled Ethiopians, so that the standard room prices reflect the local economy, though it is increasingly the case that tourists will be charged a special faranji price of around twice the local rate. Except for in a handful of major tourist centres, you can expect to pay around US$8–12 for a room in a superior budget hotel, which is usually a fair value for money. Travellers on a very tight budget should be aware that, although it will often be assumed that faranji prefer self-contained rooms, almost all superior budget hotels also have cheaper rooms using communal showers, and that these are generally similar in price but of a higher standard than rooms in true shoestring hotels.
The shoestring category embraces a good 85% of hotels in Ethiopia. In larger towns, there may be 30 or 40 such establishments. In the sort of small town where elsewhere in Africa you might expect at best one hotel, there may be half a dozen in Ethiopia. Hotels in this category can range from dirty, noisy, showerless brothels with flaking paint and sagging, flea-ridden beds, to bright and cheery family-run establishments with good communal showers and clean, comfortable rooms.
Rooms in this range generally cost US$3–7, dependent more on the town you are in than the quality of the hotel. In other words, in most towns there will be a standard price for hotels in this category, regardless of quality (in fact, I have often been asked more for a room in a dump than for a far nicer room a few doors down). It is difficult to imagine that many travellers, even those on the tightest budget, will worry too much about whether they’re paying a birr or three or less, so in the regional part of the guide I have often not quoted individual prices for hotels in this category, but have instead listed the better places.
Bearing in mind that many large towns have dozens of shoestring hotels, and that prices are relatively uniform, it is worth choosing your hotel with care, and asking to see the shower and toilet before you take a room. Ethiopian hotel owners tend to devote little time to maintenance, so that the newest hotels are often the cleanest and brightest. As a rule, the exterior of a hotel is generally a fair reflection of the interior. Also, hotels with female owners, or a strong female presence, tend to be cleaner and friendlier than those run only by men. Note, too, that many cheap hotels in Ethiopia to some extent double as brothels, but – while it can be mildly disconcerting to wake in the night to the sound of quadraphonic orgasms and creaking beds in the surrounding rooms – such hotels aren’t necessarily dirtier or less secure than others. However, they are best avoided by women travelling alone.
The opportunities for organised camping in Ethiopia are limited to a few facility-free campsites in various national parks, the Wabe Shebelle Hotel at Wondo Genet and the Wabe Shebelle Hotel and the Welanesa and Langano lodges at Lake Langano and in Arba Minch. As such, the additional weight and hassle involved in carrying camping equipment is difficult to justify in Ethiopia.