Where the Dinner Table Is an Altar of Thanks
ETHIOPIA is not a country people go to for food. But despite its lack of culinary fanfare, Addis Ababa, the capital city, has a rich and unexpected food culture. And more than just great meals, this is food that comes with a story.
This is a country that serves up grass-fed beef and organic vegetables by default. There are no trendy macro-organic-vegan movements; rather, the livestock graze in open fields because there are no factory farms, and vegetables are rarely treated with pesticides because farmers can’t afford the chemicals. Going there is a step back in time, literally — Ethiopians follow a version of the Julian calendar, so the year is 1999, and Ethiopia will have its millennium celebration on Sept. 12.
On a trip to Addis Ababa last year, I became increasingly intrigued with the cuisine. Everywhere — from dingy streets to polished hotels — I saw people of every age, class and occupation eating the same food and embracing the same traditions. The food is a source of national pride, and a daily reminder of this country’s history.
There are no appetizers or desserts in Ethiopia. Chefs do not craft menus to whet the appetite with an amuse bouche. Food has a primal role: to be filling, nutritious and packed with as much flavor as possible, whether it’s spicy chickpea hummus with caramelized onions, or grilled chicken dripping with a sweet yogurt sauce.
Even at the city’s handful of high-end restaurants (the ones with table service and uniformed servers), there is an unspoken obligation to provide true sustenance. This is a country, after all, that suffered some of the worst famines of recent decades.
And at the heart of every Ethiopian meal is injera. Basically a pancake — or more accurately, a really, really big pancake — injera is made from tef, a sour-wheat-like grain that is mixed with cool water and a pinch of yeast. But unlike a pancake, it isn’t flipped over, so the topside remains spongy, the better to sop up the vegetables and meat in the saucelike wat (sometimes spelled wot or wett) that is ladled on top. In a country where utensils are scarce, injera is not only your dinner plate, it’s also your knife, fork, spoon and sometimes napkin.
When a platter of injera arrives at the table, covered in dips of fresh, locally grown vegetables and farm-raised meats, it is immediately torn apart by everyone within arm’s reach. The ritual is as much about silent gratitude for what the land has offered, as it is about digging into a great meal.
The first place I tried injera was at this candlelit tukul, a traditional hut with low wooden tables and colorful ceiling murals on the city’s main drag, Bole Road. As I sat down with my friend Tariku Warigtay, a local guide, local residents were drinking St. George beer, and pretty waitresses in white cotton dresses were scurrying about.
After a moment, a young waitress approached with a silver tray and pitcher. In the tray was a bar of soap.
“It’s for washing your hands,” Tariku explained. “There are no utensils, so we must have clean hands.”
It was the most decadent hand washing I’ve ever had: after I soaped up, the waitress poured warm water over my lathered palms, then gave me a warm towel. She lighted a stick of incense on our table, and the room filled with the scent of sandalwood. A minute later, she brought over two bottles of icy St. George, and as far as I was concerned, the meal could have almost ended right there.
Luckily, it did not. Tariku ordered the specialty of the house, injera with mixed-vegetable wat. Our injera arrived on a woven grass mat otherwise bare until the waitress returned with a collection of ceramic bowls. On our injera she spooned sautéed spinach with caramelized onions, spicy potatoes with red peppers, yellow lentil hummus, fried green beans with garlic, mashed chili peppers, refried beans with tangy pepper, crushed chickpeas and a crisp, green salad.
I ripped off a small piece, and gingerly dipped it into the chickpea sauce. Then I watched how Tariku — who’s been eating the stuff for 30 years — approached his half. There is nothing delicate or refined about eating injera. He ripped off big sections and dunked them in the savory dips until his fingers were dripping with onions and spinach. I rolled up my sleeves and joined him.
Eating injera is a sensory feast — the sweet smell of sandalwood, the rhythmic drumming from a trio of musicians, sporadic bursts of flickering candlelight, and a sweet and spicy meal that clings to my fingers. All five senses are abundantly fed, and the entire meal comes to only 100 birr, or roughly $11 at 9.4 birr to the dollar.
Across town, down a treacherously bumpy and forlorn dirt road, is one of Addis’s swankiest restaurants, Agelgil. This is where the businessmen, diplomats and the Italian-suit-wearing crowd come to feast.
The bar is more of a lounge, with a canopy of dried palm fronds — you’ll think you’ve landed in Los Angeles. But walk in back, to the dining room with its traditional art, big wooden tables and trays made of animal skins for serving injera, and it’s clear that this place is authentically Ethiopian. There’s also a small stage in the center.
We parked ourselves at a table in the middle of the room and perused the menu — injera with assorted meat or vegetable wats, teps (spicy fried lamb or other meat) and a fajita-like dish of sizzling lamb, beef or chicken with peppers and onions. Main courses cost 50 to 100 birr.
This night’s dinner consisted of assa kitfo, or chopped fried tilapia. It arrived on injera, and with wedges of flat bread, along with traditional vegetable wats — potatoes, peppers, beans and onions in spicy sauces, all delicious. But the assa kitfo is truly stupendous. This time, I was not shy about digging in.
I asked Selamawit Tekeste, the manager, how the assa kitfo is prepared, and she was coy. “We are the only place you can find this dish,” she said. “We can’t give out our secret.”
From what I could tell, the recipe calls for batter-fried tilapia, mixed with onions, chili peppers, spicy sauce and something else I can’t quite place. Ms. Tekeste was pleased. “It’s the part you don’t know that keeps our customers coming back,” she said.
Well, that and the dancing girls. The draw at many of the restaurants in Addis Ababa is as much the entertainment as it is the food. At Agelgil, two men and two women, in tribal dress from the southern Oromo region, twisted, vibrated and shook in several highly choreographed dances, culminating with the two men performing a traditional spear dance in baboon wigs (yes, real, and no, not legal).
The meal ended with a coffee ceremony — a ritual inherited from the countryside. A waitress came to our table and roasted coffee beans over hot coals, fanning the smoke under our noses. She then ground the beans in a mortar and pestle, poured the grounds into piping hot water and filled our espresso cups. As she left, she sprinkled sweet incense leaves over a small bowl of smoldering coals.
When the incense burned down, it was time to leave.
Teshomech Kitfo House
The top of the food chain in Addis Ababa is kitfo — raw, spiced beef — and nowhere does it better than the Teshomech Kitfo House, hidden down a bumpy, unpaved road flanked by abandoned dwellings and small flocks of sheep. Two iron gates and a mammoth acacia tree marked its entrance; this popular restaurant, it seems, is only for those who know its whereabouts.
The speakeasy vibe continued inside. There were no menus, the clientele was entirely well-dressed local residents, and there was only one thing to order: kitfo, which literally translates to “diced into pieces” in Amharic. It is the favored way to eat meat in Ethiopia, for those who can afford it (an order of kitfo at Teshomech costs 33 birr, about $3.55).
The owner, Antonios Tekle Mariam, a tall, affable man, told me that he named the restaurant after his wife, Teshomech. But it was not time for small talk — he weaved me through the patio and dining room packed with a lunchtime crowd, past a yard where banana palm fronds and cabbage were drying in the sun, and into his kitchen.
In one room, three women in white butcher’s coats were chopping up raw meat with machetes, discarding fatty pieces and neatly arranging the choice ones. The meat was brought to a second room, to be spiced, seasoned and occasionally sautéed.
“You can have the meat cooked if you like,” Mr. Mariam said. “But real kitfo is raw. It is just warmed for a moment and served.”
Actually, it’s a little more than that. I watched as a teenage sous chef poured melted butter over the raw meat, warmed it in a wok (meat slightly warmed like this is called leb leb) and sprinkled it with a bright orange powder known as mit mita, a fiery mix of red pepper, mustard seed and salt.
Once it was blended (but still quite raw), she scooped the meat onto a banana leaf next to three sides: grated cheese, drawn butter and a cabbage, cheese and pepper sauce. A small wrap of injera was added before the banana leaf was whisked off to the dining room.
I was squeamish about eating the kitfo, but my curiosity got the better of me. It was faintly oily from the butter but warm and spicy, not unlike steak tartare, but with more kick.
“Anyone can prepare kitfo,” Mr. Mariam said, as we watched the women scurry about the kitchen, armed with machetes and wooden gavels. “But kitfo comes from the Gurage region. I am from the Gurage region, and everyone in Addis knows I make the best kitfo.”
He paused and took in the surroundings again — deftly sliced sides of beef, neat rows of flank steaks pounded paper thin, a table piled high with assorted ground meat. Then he smiled and made his only joke of the day: “It’s in my blood.”
Just when I didn’t think it was possible, I got even closer to the source of kitfo. The Tarik House is a white clapboard butcher’s stand in the Lideta neighborhood, recessed a few feet from the road and barely larger than the two men I found inside.
The men, each in a white butcher’s coat, silently sliced up a side of beef. It looked like something from a meat locker, except it was not cold. In fact, the cows hanging on the wall are never frozen, going swiftly from organic grass fields to these racks, with a brief stop at the slaughterhouse.
But Tarik House is not only a butcher shop, it is also a restaurant. And here’s the thing: there’s no kitchen. The dish of the house is tire siga, or raw meat.
Unlike kitfo, tire siga is not mixed with warm butter or heated on the stove or served on a pretty banana leaf. The butchers carve generous slabs of beef while it’s hanging on the hooks, slice it into fist-sized pieces and deposit it, with no frills, on a metal tray. And they can’t fill orders fast enough.
The loyal customers, mostly men, sit outside at flimsy fold-up tables, diving into the platters before them. One of them when we were there was Solomon, a friend of Tariku who lives nearby.
He cut bite-size pieces of meat with a crescent-shaped carving knife. He dunked one into a dish of mit mita, squirted a lime wedge on top, and wrapped it in a piece of injera and ate. He washed it down with chilled red wine. The meal costs 40 birr for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef (most people get half a kilogram).
This time, I could not do it — I dunked the injera in the mit mita, squirted the lime juice on, and found it plenty flavorful without the meat. Yet when I saw Solomon’s face, I could not help thinking I was missing out.
Occasionally, the Tarik House will fry the meat for a moment on a hot plate if the customer is queasy about raw beef. That’s how Chuchu, a grumpy regular who goes there for lunch daily, prefers it.
“I never eat raw,” he said, waving his index finger for emphasis. “It must be cooked.”
A few patrons looked up briefly and dismissed him — they’ve heard this speech before.
“Some of my countrymen are out of their minds,” Chuchu continued. “Raw meat is only for the lions.”
Prices are for dinner for two with drinks.
Habesha Restaurant, Bole Road near the Wollo Sefer junction; (251) 551-8358; 120 to 170 birr, or $13 to $18, at 9.4 birr to the dollar.
Agelgil National Food Restaurant and Hotel, old Villa Verde house in the Meskel Flower area; (251) 011-465-3299; 200 birr.
Teshomech Kitfo House, 636 Haile Gebre Selassie Road; (251) 618-2442; about 70 birr.
The Tarik House, Lideta area, across from the Lideta church; about 60 birr.
Tariku Warigtay charges $50 a day for a restaurant or shopping tour of Addis Ababa; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.