I would say that 90% of the time it is really easy to be a vegetarian in Ethiopia.
With the majority of the population being Ethiopian Orthodox Christians there are a lot of people who fast. This version of fasting basically involves avoiding all animals products. Every Wednesday and Friday, and during the many holidays that occur, the majority of Ethiopians are basically going vegan. This means most restaurants have fasting options – ‘som’ in Amharic.
Ethiopian food is also delicious – the spices, the flavours, the injera! Most traditional Ethiopian dishes are served on injera, a spongy and slightly sour flatbread (the flattest of the flatbreads). It is made from teff flour which is a grain native to Ethiopia. It is also really nutritious and gluten-free which means it is becoming more popular in North America. You can find injera in Toronto, but it is usually made with a wheat-teff mix because it’s cheaper. By the way, be prepared to eat everything with your hands.
My favourite dish is shiro. Chickpeas are one of my favourite foods so it was natural that I would love shiro. It is basically a sauce made from onions and spiced chickpea powder and then served on injera. I will share my recipe with you, but I have been told it isn’t perfect. I would make shiro at G’s house a lot because it is quick and the ingredients are easy to find. I also ordered it at restaurants often because sometimes it was the only vegetarian option, but that was okay by me. Sometimes I would express my love for shiro and get laughed at by Ethiopians. My one friend told me that his mom made him shiro everyday during his childhood so now he doesn’t like it. Understandable.
Another amazing dish is beyenetu which is a mix of vegetarian options – different lentil dishes, cabbage, potatoes, spinach, salad and usually a little stuffed pepper. It is always available during a period of fasting, but otherwise it might not be on the menu.
You can also find the lentil stew, misir wot, at most places. These are lentils spiced with berbere and of course served on injera. For me berbere is the spice that defines Ethiopian cuisine. It is used in most dishes and adds amazing flavour and heat. If you aren’t into spicy food, Ethiopian might not be for you.
There is also a lot of pasta in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians at one point, and although never colonized (Ethiopia is the only country in Africa to never be colonized and they are very proud of this) the Italian influence is obvious on the menus. At a lot of restaurants you can find pasta with tomato sauce and pizza. I ate some delicious vegetable pizzas in Ethiopia, although most don’t have cheese. More than once, I also found myself eating spaghetti with injera. Talk about carbs.
Lastly, I just want to share the amazing salads that you can find in Ethiopia. The first time I visited Ethiopia I avoided salad thanks to the many warnings about avoiding uncooked vegetables and the possibility of getting sick from the water used to wash them. After about a month I found myself in a very Westernized restaurant (New York Restaurant on Bole) and ordered a house salad. I’m not sure, but maybe the familiar atmosphere is what prompted me to feel safe in ordering a salad. I ate it, it was delicious and my stomach survived. The salad was an average salad. After that I stopped being afraid of ordering salad and discovered the real hidden gem that is a salad in Ethiopia. Sometimes my colleagues would go to restaurants that only served meat. I’m talking about carcass in the doorway type of restaurants and no shiro on the menu. Not wanting to eat alone, I ventured with them and it was suggested that I order a salad from the fruit and vegetable place that until then I had only known to make delicious fresh juices. Turns out they are also salad professionals. If you order a salad from one of these such places, you end up with a massive plate with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, avocados, potatoes, bananas, and spicy green peppers with oil, salt and lemon to dress it. This was salad heaven for me. One time I even received a salad with mango and papaya as well.
I am lucky to live in Canada where I can eat all my favourite food, but a lot of the time I miss my Ethiopian diet. I could happily eat Ethiopian food for the rest of my days.
Understanding the Menu
Fasting – Som
Fasting Food – Yeu Som Megeb
Vegetables – Atkelt
Salad – Selata
Meat – Sega
Fish – Asa
Chicken – Doro
Egg – Enkulal