Ethiopian Vegetarian Food
How to Eat Healthy (and Delicious) in Ethiopia
By Mark Wiens
Ethiopia is one of the top livestock producing nations in the world.
People LOVE to eat meat!
But the good news is, if you’re vegetarian, or if you just want to eat healthy, Ethiopia also has some of the best vegetarian food I’ve ever had in the world.
Far from a vegetarian myself, I ended up eating probably half or more of my meals vegetarian. Because in Ethiopia, just like in India when it comes to vegetarian and vegan food, Ethiopia knows how to do it well.
Eating Ethiopian Vegetarian Food
According Ethiopian Orthodox Church, every Wednesday and Friday, as well as the Lent period, are “fasting days.”
Now this isn’t the type of fasting where you refrain from eating altogether, but instead, fasting in Ethiopia means that you omit meat and all animal products from your diet – this includes meat, milk, butter, cheese – ingredients that are otherwise heavily used in Ethiopian cooking.
The good thing is, spices (berbere) are still permitted, so Ethiopian vegetarian and vegan food is still tasty and delicious.
First things first: injera.
It’s the staple starch and filler of Ethiopia, a food that just about all Ethiopians, no matter what class or status, eat one, two, or even three times daily.
Injera is made from teff, an ancient grain that’s native to Ethiopia, and really only eaten by Ethiopians and Eritreans.
Teff flour is mixed with water until it becomes a batter. It’s left to ferment, giving it a signature sour flavor, and then fried like a pancake in large circles.
Injera is used as the base of any Ethiopian meal, spread flat out over a communal pan and topped with Ethiopian saucy dishes.
Restaurants also normally have extra rolls of injera you can use to scoop up the dishes on your plate, but often there’s enough excess injera from the base that you don’t really need any extra.
The spongy pancake staple is something you’ll be eating every single day in Ethiopia, no matter if you’re a strict vegetarian or a hardcore carnivore.
Everyone eats injera, and it’s served complimentary with any Ethiopian dish you choose. I personally love it!
Yetsom Beyaynetu – The Veg Platter
Let’s start with a complete Ethiopian vegetarian food meal known as yetsom beyaynetu.
It’s essentially a mixed combination platter of injera topped with a variety of strictly vegan curries and vegetables available that day.
Just about every Ethiopian restaurant offers a yetsom beyaynetu on Wednesdays and Fridays, and some offer it everyday of the week.
The mixed Ethiopian vegetarian plate offers a little bit of everything so that you get some real variety in your meal. I tried ordering single dishes occasionally, but I always ended up craving that mixed plate. The flavors and ingredients are so delicious together.
Shiro Wat – A Staple
One of the Ethiopian food staples, in both vegan and non-vegan cooking, is shiro wat. It’s a curry or stew made from ground chickpeas flour – so basically it’s what I would call a bean paste – and it’s so flavorful.
Vegan shiro wat is cooked with a little oil, a blend of spices, onions, garlic, and ginger. It’s creamy like a hummus, beautifully flavorful, and very healthy.
Misir Wat – Lentils
Another omnipresent Ethiopian dish that’s almost certainly available at any restaurant serving vegan food is misir wat, or red lentils curry.
The lentils are simmered along with the mixture of spices (berbere), onions and garlic, and olive oil. Again, it’s a winning Ethiopian vegetarian food that’s not only healthy and protein rich, but it’s really tasty.
There are plenty of other wats (curries or stews) that utilize yellow peas, all sorts of different legumes, mung beans, and the full spectrum of legumes.
Gomen is collard greens, a vitamin packed healthy green leafy vegetable. It’s extremely common in Ethiopia and nearly always makes part of a mixed platter. The vegetable is normally cooked quite plain, sauteed in a little oil with some garlic.
Other vegetables that are frequently consumed in Ethiopian vegetarian food include cabbage, beats, potatoes, carrots, string beans, tomatoes, and jalapenos.
Ethiopian Salad (Salata)
Another thing you’re absolutely going to love in Ethiopia is the salad.
Many of the mixed Ethiopian vegan food platters (yetsom beyaynetu) will include a portion of tomato salad (timatim salata) as one of the dishes, but if not, you can ask for it (they don’t always have it, but it’s worth a shot). Whenever I could get tomato salad, I would order a huge bowl of it.
Diced tomatoes, red onions, and slices of jalapeno, dressed in nothing more than salt, lemon / lime juice, and a drizzle of olive oil, then scooped up with pieces of injera is an amazing flavor. I loved it!
At Kategna restaurant in Addis Ababa I also loved their mixed salad, a huge clay pot loaded with ripped pieces of napa cabbage, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, and dressed in the same simple and marvelous dressing.
Fasting Fitfit (Firfir)
Fitfit is a popular Ethiopian food that includes pieces of injera that are soaked in lemon juice and olive oil, mixed with some berbere seasoning, and eaten as a full meal, or on top of a combination platter of injera.
You could almost call it marinated injera. It’s easy to eat and makes good use of day old injera.
There are often a number of fasting versions of fitfit, such as shiro fitfit (fitfit) or timatim fit fit(tomato salad fitfit) that both cater to vegetarian eaters.
I personally prefer solid injera with a spread of curries on top, but there are many locals that enjoy fitfit from time to time. It’s also a popular breakfast dish throughout Ethiopia.
You’re going to love Ethiopian vegetarian food…
Like I already mentioned above, I’m not vegetarian myself, though I do enjoy eating healthy, and I thoroughly enjoyed numerous vegetarian meals while traveling in Ethiopia.
But one thing is certain, if I ever did become vegetarian, I would be happy to live in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has one of the few cuisines where you can find healthy vegetarian dishes, packed with flavor and loaded with spices, without the addition of animal flavorings.
Now that you are armed with the knowledge of these delicious Ethiopian vegetarian foods, you’ll have no problem ordering up a satisfying “fasting feast” (I know that sounds a little ironic) that you’ll feel great about!