What Does Ethiopian Food Taste Like?

Thinking about trying the new Ethiopian restaurant in town? We'll tell you everything you need to know about tastes, textures, vegan options and more. We'll even throw in some recipe tips so you can make your own Ethiopian dishes at home.

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What Does Ethiopian Food Taste Like? 

Ethiopian food incorporates spicy, earthy, pungent and tart flavors. Injera, a sour fermented teff flour flatbread, is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine served with a variety of spiced and deeply savory dishes.

Berbere, a seasoning made of spices like chili pepper, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and coriander, is a base flavorant in many dishes.

You'll also see earthy turmeric and cumin in lentils, and in ye’abasha gomen, a braised collard greens specialty, berbere-type seasonings as well as tangy lemon juice or vinegar. 

Ethiopian Food Textures 

Much of Ethiopian cuisine is characterized by soft textures. Injera is spongy and closer to a crepe in texture than, say, pita bread. Many of the dishes served with it are stewed veggies and meats: creamy lentils, tender greens and soft-cooked meats. 

It's important to note that there are many meat-heavy Ethiopian foods, such as doro wat, a popular stew often made with chicken or beef. 

But veggie-based choices are numerous. They include ye’abasha gomen (or gomen wat), a split pea stew called kik alicha, and atkilt wat, a stew made with cabbage, potatoes and sometimes carrots. 

As always, it's a good plan to check and make sure that there are no animal-based ingredients or animal byproducts, even in the vegetable items. Otherwise, the vegan menu is pretty ample, including the injera and most Ethiopian restaurants are very vegan-friendly.

How Spicy Is Ethiopian Food? 

We won't sugarcoat it. People tend to find Ethiopian food pretty spicy, but no more spicy than Indian food. Just know that anything with berbere will be hot.

But some things are mild, like atkilt wat and kik alicha. These will usually omit berbere and instead favor the earthy to pungent spices like garlic, onions and turmeric.

Does Ethiopian Food Have Dairy? 

Vegans do need to stay alert when it comes to dairy in Ethiopian food. A clarified butter with added spices called niter kibbeh is often used, even in meals that are primarily made of vegetables.

However, many restaurants do cater to plant-based diets with at least a few vegan options. When in doubt, ask if something contains any dairy and if it can be left out. We've never been to an Ethiopian joint that didn't have some vegan options.

Vegan Ethiopian Food Recipe Tips 

You don't have to wait to go out to a restaurant. Whip up your own vegan Ethiopian meals in the comfort of your kitchen. These videos will walk you through some melt-in-your-mouth recipes.

Ye'duba wot is a stew sweetened naturally with squash. If you don't have berbere seasoning, make your own with a recipe like this one. Just as a heads up—this video is subtitled in English.

Here's what you need to make ye'duba wot:

  • Onion
  • Salt
  • Vegetable oil
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Tomato paste
  • Berbere
  • Fresh rosemary
  • Fresh thyme
  • Cherry or plum tomatoes
  • Squash (like butternut or acorn)

Here's a protein-packed spiced lentil dish called misir wot. It's made with red lentils, which give it more of a sweet flavor than brown lentils.

To make it, get this ingredients:

  • Red lentils
  • Onions
  • Cooking oil
  • Berbere
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • Mekelesha spice blend (like garam masala)

Wrap Up 

Ethiopian food is full of earthy, spicy and tangy flavors and rich, creamy textures. Avoiding meat and dairy is possible by shooting for the vegetable-based options while making sure to ask if niter kibbeh, the clarified butter, can be omitted. Ethiopian foods can easily be added to your vegan menu as so many dishes are or can easily be made plant-based. Try misir wot, ye'duba wat or kik alicha with rice or in your own injera flatbread.

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