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My 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! 

If 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



When 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.



            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.



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            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.

            Ethiopian beer is also well-known.  It’s fairly common to find either of the two popular brands in restaurants across America. 


            Ethiopians 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.


After 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.

Between 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 available.  Ethiopian staff will usually try to find dishes that your family will like.  


Child-friendly Food (is it easy to find things that American kids will eat):

Adventure Level (how different is this from American food):



Rate Ethiopian food yourself!


Wat:    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.

Injera: Unleaven bread, typically some shade of gray with big holes in it.

Alechi: Vegetarian stews traditionally served on days of fasting.

Tej:      Honey wine, same color as a rich white wine, but tinged with a honey taste.

Tella:   Homemade Ethiopian beer.

Iab:      Cottage cheese and yogurt with herbs- one of the less spicy food choices.

Kitfo:   Ground beef served raw, as the last dish of the meal.

Tef:      Flour from a grain not easily found in North America, used to make Injera.



Add more Ethiopian food term items to the list



  • Wash your hands before and after the meal.
  • Try 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.
  • Be prepared for some of the spiciest food the African continent has to offer.


  • Lick your fingers during the meal- no one else wants your germs!
  • Forget to order at least one Wat- you haven’t had Ethiopian food unless you’ve tried at least one of these stews.
  • Worry if you get some stew on your fingers- with practice you’ll get better at it.
  • Forget that you are sharing the food with other people; try to leave enough of each dish for everyone to have some.



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For more information, try:

Zed's Ethiopian Cuisine- Eat where the Food Virgin eats in Washington D.C. Find Ethiopian restaurants all across America.

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