A big part of Ethiopian culture is sharing food. If you want to show comradeship, or respect, you will share your meal with those around you.
Since food is generally eaten just with your hands, sharing it can be taken as an intimate gesture by some since in Western culture you keep touching to a minimal. I for one enjoy eating with my hands, since it’s intuitive, and the less fuss about utensils allows for more concentration on the meal. For the most part I will accept food from others but won’t offer any. This is my first trip were I’ve decided to reverse roles. I’ve become close to my friends there and I wanted to share my love for them by sharing.
I’m sure for the average Ethiopian sharing food off a plate is normal and an everyday occurrence, but for someone who only shares food with family or close friends, it can seem like a big deal. I’m sure many of them were wondering why I was beaming so much. At first it seems very strange and as if all eyes are on you, so many things could go wrong. You could drop the food before getting it to them, or you could grab too much food and make it uneatable in one bite. I also think somewhere hidden in there is the fear of being rejected, but I’ve yet to see that happen.
So you have more of an idea of the type of food, I’ll describe in general terms what Ethiopian food mostly consists of. Traditionally Ethiopian food is served on injera. Injera is made out of teff, and can come in light and dark shades. This is basically the bread of the meal, and you use it to eat with the rest of the food. On top of the Injera is a combination of meats and vegetables.
It might surprise you to know that many Ethiopian dishes are vegan. Since many people are Christian Orthodox they go without meat (or any animal-by products) for set periods of time and all of Lent. The Majority of Ethiopia’s population is Christian, not Muslim as is often assumed. It’s unique since it was one of the only Christian practicing countries in Africa before colonialism, and has so remained.
A popular vegan dish is Shiro, which is a combination of chickpeas and broad beans; it’s orange in color and smooth to the taste. Added to fir-fir it becomes a new dish called shiro fir-fir and eaten primarily for breakfast in the morning. There are a handful of other chickpeas and lentil dishes, but on the opposite side of the spectrum you have the raw beef like Kifto, Gored gored, and for cooked meat you have Tibs and Doro wot. Most of the meat dishes are spicy which make them my favourite to eat. They often use a special powder to season the meat called berbere.
I remember at an Ethiopian restaurant once I asked for more berbere. They brought me out a little container with the hot powder inside. After adding some to the meat, I accidently rubbed my eye with the same hand. The instant I did it tears came to my eyes and for the rest of the meal I couldn’t see out of it. It looked as if I was secretly sobbing and people kept asking me what was wrong. Since then I’ve learned to be a bit more careful around spices.
All the dishes are delicious and very filling. The only bad part is that foreigners in general have trouble digesting the food. It disagrees with their stomach and can make for a long night. I find it’s no problem for me, so it’s a little bit hard to empathize. I suggest you start with small mouthfuls, and if it’s really giving you a hard time share it with the person next to you. This way you can make a new friend while scrupulously avoiding your meal.