FIRST TIME EATING... ETHIOPIAN
FOOD VIRGIN'S FIRST TIME
first time eating Ethiopian food showed me how
surprisingly varied dining experiences from different
cultures can be, right here in America.
For one thing, when you walk into an Ethiopian
restaurant, you won’t find any silverware on your table-
in fact, you won’t find any in the whole restaurant!
you’re going to eat Ethiopian food, you’ll be
essentially eating it with your fingers- rolling it up in
flat bread, sort of as you would with Mexican Fajitas.
As such, you’d better make sure your hands are
good and clean before you go.
Just in case you forgot, though, most restaurants
will provide you with moist towelettes, or a more formal
water and towel method.
Tell us about your first time eating Ethiopian
you first arrive at an Ethiopian restaurant, wait to be
seated or check with a staff member to see if you can
choose your own seat.
In terms of décor, you can expect to see Ethiopian
and African art and musical instruments on the walls,
sometimes including a welcoming figurine at the entrance.
The most notable exotic feature in many Ethiopian
restaurants, is that you may not find normal tables.
Instead, there may be low, round wicker tables,
called mesabs, surrounded by stools.
My first Ethiopian experience was at Zed’s
Ethiopian Cuisine in Washington, D.C., but long ago, Zed
replaced her mesabs with normal tables, complete with
white linen tablecloths, which were no doubt more
comfortable for the many world leaders she has hosted over
the years, such as President Bush Sr., and Hilary Clinton.
TO ORDER & HOW TO EAT IT
The easiest way
to eat Ethiopian food for the first time is to order a set
menu platter to share among everyone at the table.
On the platter, you’ll find an assortment of
spicy stews called ‘Wat’, chopped vegetables that are
similar to collard greens, one boiled egg per person, and
sometimes chicken drumsticks.
Now, you might be asking, “How am I supposed to
eat stews with no utensils?”
Well, the answer is, you’ll scoop it up with bits
of Ethiopian bread! Ethiopian
bread called ‘Injera’ is like nothing I’ve ever come
across: It’s flat, spongy and gray and has lots of holes
in it that are perfect for scooping.
It will typically be found right underneath all the
other food, sort of like a giant, flat, edible cloth
lining the platter; what you’ll need to do is rip off a
small piece, place it over whichever Wat you’d like to
eat and scoop it up. Rip, scoop, repeat.
If you choose to
eat somewhere where they don’t conveniently offer the
set menu option, you’ll need to order a selection of
individual dishes à la carte.
The most popular items are Doro Wat (chicken curry
stew), Sega Wat (lamb curry stew), Iab (cottage cheese and
yogurt), and Alecha (vegetables).
Note that there’s never any pork on the menu and
not everything is spicy, like the cheese, for example.
The important thing to know is that you should
order a mix of a few dishes, as they’ll either be served
in small portions on your personal plate, or on one big
platter shared with everyone at the table.
Zed explains, “In Ethiopia, we say that when
people eat together from the same plate, they won’t
betray each other” in the future.
Share more tips of your own
So what’s the
best drink to have with Ethiopian food? Ethiopian honey wine called ‘Tej’! In the glass, it looks like straightforward white wine, but
to taste it, you’ll find that it has a smooth, mellow
taste, as the sweetness of the honey balances the acidity
of the wine.
is also well-known. It’s
fairly common to find either of the two popular brands in
restaurants across America.
traditionally aren’t big on dessert.
As such, don’t be surprised if the only choice is
to have standard American desserts, or cut fruit, such as
pineapple and melon. Better still, skip straight to coffee. Remember, Ethiopia is where coffee originally came from (an
area called Kaffa). Typically,
you can order Ethiopian coffee bean espresso; this is the
way that it is served in Ethiopia.
Zed, a true Ethiopian, takes hers with salt, though
you can have yours with sugar. Normal American coffee will probably also be available.
the meal, typically, the waiter will bring you some more
moist towelettes for wiping your fingers, or depending how
upscale the restaurant is, finger bowls and napkins.
Of course, you might simply want to head to the
bathroom to wash your hands properly.
In my case, my husband couldn’t resist pointing
out that if you use the right bread scooping technique,
your hands should remain relatively clean; this being my
first time, though, I have to admit that my hands needed
the full soap and sink treatment.
the ambiance and the food, eating Ethiopian is quite an
exotic experience, but easy and fun for first-timers.
You’ll likely find the traditional dishes
mentioned here in most Ethiopian restaurants.
In many places, you can tailor the spiciness to
your taste, or order items that aren’t spicy at all,
like sautéed beef or chicken.
Of course, if you get stuck, you’ll likely find
that staff are friendly and helpful, willing to guide you
through your first experience- if you eat at Zed’s,
she’ll even show you the ideal scooping technique
herself, if you want.
Wherever you choose to go, hopefully, you’ll
enjoy it as much as I did, and your first time eating
Ethiopian food won’t be your last.
The ambiance in Ethiopian restaurants is lots of
fun for families. Being
able to eat from the same plate, and use the bread can be
an exciting change for kids. By the same token, parents of kids who aren’t used to
eating spicy food should call ahead to get a sense of what
items their kids might enjoy.
In some cases, restaurants can leave out the hot
spices, making tamer versions of normally hot dishes.
In other cases, there may be plainer dishes
staff will usually try to find dishes that your family
(is it easy to find things that American
kids will eat):
(how different is this from American
Rate Ethiopian food yourself!
BASIC ETHIOPIAN FOOD TERMS
Pronounced like ‘watt’ (as in the electrical
measurement), this is Ethiopia’s main dish, stew.
You’ll typically be able to find versions made
with chicken, lamb or beef.
Unleaven bread, typically some shade of gray with
big holes in it.
Vegetarian stews traditionally served on days of
Honey wine, same color as a rich white wine, but
tinged with a honey taste.
Homemade Ethiopian beer.
Cottage cheese and yogurt with herbs- one of the
less spicy food choices.
Ground beef served raw, as the last dish of the
Flour from a grain not easily found in North
America, used to make Injera.
more Ethiopian food term items to the list
CRITICAL DO’S AND
your hands before and after the meal.
to eat using the inerja bread- it’s fairly easy and
fun, and your hosts will appreciate your effort.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a fork, though, if
you’re really getting frustrated.
prepared for some of the spiciest food the African
continent has to offer.
your fingers during the meal- no one else wants your
to order at least one Wat- you haven’t had Ethiopian
food unless you’ve tried at least one of these
if you get some stew on your fingers- with practice
you’ll get better at it.
that you are sharing the food with other people; try
to leave enough of each dish for everyone to have
Suggest more DOs and DON'Ts
For more information, try:
Eat where the Food Virgin eats in Washington D.C.
Find Ethiopian restaurants all across America.