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. At local eateries, you’ll often find that one plate of food 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.
The most common non-vegetarian accompaniment to injera is a dish called tibs (or more properly siga tibs, literally ‘meat fried’), which as its name suggests consists of freshly flash-fried meat, spiced moderately and mixed in with onions and peppers. Tibs is often served with a spicy red powder called mitmita on the side, or
with awaze, a sauce made from beriberi (powdered chilli) together with lime juice, salt, olive oil and a drop of whisky or wine. Particularly recommended is shekla tibs, where the fried meat is served in a clay pot that contains a charcoal burner.
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. You might also come across tripe wat, which is made with tripe but pronounced trippy. The official national dish
of Ethiopia, doro wot is made with chicken, but is best avoided if you’re 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.
The mildly stimulating leaf known as khat, qat or chat is grown widely and legally in the southeast highlands of Ethiopia, where it is also consumed enthusiastically by locals (predominantly but by no means only Muslims) and is also transported in copious quantities to Addis Ababa, as well as across the border to Somaliland. The centre of khat cultivation and chewing is 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 stuff – prices do reflect quality and the youngest leaves are the best.
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 less than US$1.
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$1, 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. Ethiopia has been a wine producer for several decades, but the established Gouder brand is an acquired taste. By contrast, the Acacia and Rift Valley ranges, first produced by the Castel Vineyard outside Ziway in 2014, make for great easy drinking. Imported wines are also available at better restaurants. Imported spirits are served in most bars at very low prices for generous tots.
Finding a room in Ethiopia is seldom a problem, and accommodation tends to be inexpensive. It should be understood, however, that hotels aimed at tourists tend, with a few exceptions, to be of poor to middling quality. Most of those exceptions are in the capital, Addis Ababa, though it is increasingly the case that larger towns and other places of interest regularly visited by tourists will have at least one hotel that would be acceptable to all but the most demanding of Westerners. Even so, few hotels outside of Addis Ababa would scrape more than a one-star rating by international standards, and while newer and better-quality hotels seem to open all the time, standards of upkeep are poor, and many two- to three-year-old places contrive to look much older and more timeworn than they actually are.
The good news for backpackers and budget travellers is that suitable accommodation is plentiful throughout the country. The overwhelming majority of this budget accommodation constitutes unremarkable town hotels geared primarily to the local market, and it is often characterised by some or all of the following flaws: indifferent staff, aesthetically challenged décor, ugly furniture, low standards of cleanliness, an erratic power or water supply, and slack maintenance manifested in the form of broken fittings, leaky plumbing, or advertised facilities that don’t work. That said, budget hotels in Ethiopia are generally quite good value, and in most towns you’ll find decent en-suite rooms in the US$10–20 range, often cheaper. Even the most basic hotel rooms generally have electric sockets for charging mobile phones, digital cameras and similar devices, though you might first want to confirm they are working.
One quirk to watch out for in Ethiopia is that hotels tend to refer to a room with one bed as a single and to one with two beds as a double. In practice, the overwhelming majority of so-called single rooms in Ethiopia are what we would term a double: they have a bed large enough to sleep two people, and it is perfectly acceptable for a (mixed sex) couple to share the room at the ‘single’ rate. For this reason, couples whose preference is to share a bed should ask to see a single room before they pay extra for a double (which, more often than not, will actually be a twin).