Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

The Horn of Africa – Ethiopia


The Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean wash the eastern tip of Africa known as the Horn of Africa. In this region lies the legendary ancient lands of Ethiopia and Somalia.


Ethiopia’s very name conjures exotic visions of the Queen of Sheba, a legendary heritage of kings, and mythical tales of gold and hidden riches. Once called Abysinnia, this arid land of moun-

tains and plateaus boasts the beautiful Lake Tana that flows into the mighty Nile River coursing through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. Ethiopia’s name also conjures the aroma of some of the finest coffee in the world, one of her principal exports. Though impoverished and strife-torn today, Ethiopia’s history speaks eloquently of hustling trade and prosperity beginning at least 4,000 years ago.

Arabs, Egyptians, British, Portuguese, and Italians each in turn entertained hopes of ruling the land. Today, these elements of Ethiopia’s history are evident in her cultural and religious diversity. As well, Ethiopia’s distinctive form of Christianity is impregnated with elements of Judaism, Islam, and paganism, setting it apart from eastern Orthodoxy or western Catholicism.

In the plateaus and mountains, primitive beehive-shaped whets (huts) still exist in villages, while modern white skyscrapers pierce sunny skies in the large cities like Addis Ababa. Perhaps the huts are symbolic of the Ethiopian cultivation and love for honey. Guest are frequently welcomed with sweet dripping pieces of honeycomb and a bowl of curds and whey – literally the biblical milk and honey. While some Ethiopians have adopted western dress and some customs, their ties to ancient traditions remain, especially in their religion.

A meal begins with ritual handwashing. Water is poured from an ornate jug over the fingers of the right hand, which are wiped on a clean towel. Only those fingers are used for eating. Breads are held in the right hand too, to wrap, scoop, or dip into foods and sauces.

For the main meal of the day, a dome covers a small round table or a large metal tray. When lifted, a large “cloth” appears mounded with portions of stewed foods. The cloth is actually a very large thin pancake, an Ethiopian bread called injera. Often several other kinds of breads will appear as well as a variety of stews and combinations of meat and vegetables called wots and alechas. Diners enjoy the meal by tearing off hits of injera and scooping up foods. Frequently a partner or the host will combine a morsel of food and pop it into someone else’s mouth. As can be imagined, mealtime is hospitable and lively when everyone is bent over the same “table.”

Tej, the golden honey wine poured from traditional long-neck jugs, accompanies the meal while coffee with honey served in small cups concludes it. Dinner is over when the food and injera are all eaten. Later in the evening tiny spicy breads called dabo kolo, served with butter and honey, may be nibbled with fresh or dried fruits.

The large Ethiopian flat bread called injera obviates the need for tablecloths, cutlery, or serviettes. The two main types of meat and vegetable stews are wots – always spicy hot with chilies, and alechas, another type of stew sometimes quite mild. The most important sauce accompanying these dishes is berbere, and others include mittmita and waaz. The predominantly agrarian economy produces mil-let, barley, and sorghum. Tef is the millet-like grain used especially to prepare the sourdough for injera. Offal, especially tripe, is enjoyed in many dishes; beef, lamb, goat, and chicken are used by those who can afford them. For many, a diet of grains, potatoes, plantains, and legumes with some milk and cheese suffices.

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