Ethiopian Tastes

Famed chef  Marcus Samuelsson shares the secrets of his native cuisine.
Marcus Samuelsson

With each trip back to Ethiopia, the land of my birth, I am inspired by the varied flavors of its cuisine. The landlocked African nation is known for dishes that employ local herbs and spices―fenugreek, cumin, cardamom, coriander, saffron, mustard, ginger, basil―and reflect a rich history of vegetarian cooking.

And the warm flavors of Ethiopia are unique. The country is one of the few in Africa never colonized by a foreign power, so outside influences on its cuisine are subtle. Trade with India brought samosas and curry spices. A brief Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941 left a European presence evident in the country’s cathedrals and in dishes like pasta saltata.

Religious traditions practiced by Muslims, Jews, and Catholics have also shaped the country’s cooking to oblige dietary restrictions. Approximately half of Ethiopians are Muslim, so there are Arabic influences in food (especially in Eastern Ethiopia), like abstaining from pork or using spices and nuts to flavor dishes. Another Arab influence is one of hospitality: Ethiopia is a place where families open their doors to travelers, so homemakers keep food on hand to accommodate religious feasting as well as dietary constraints of times like Lent or Ramadan.

But these same religious restrictions have also fostered the country’s creative vegetarian fare. Since meat is not always readily available, Ethiopian cooks have learned to use a variety of seasonings and aromatics to create spice blends to elevate familiar vegetables and fruits. Corn, for example, and mashed potatoes profit from curry powder and coconut milk in a sweet-spicy side. Fresh and dried peppers challenge sweet mango in a salad perfect with injera bread made from the whole grain called teff.

In fact, teff, which grows in the Ethiopian highlands, is the foundation of the diet. It’s used to make injera, a sour, tangy, spongy, crepelike bread. At meals, one large round of injera is topped with a variety of stews and dips. Diners will have several additional rounds of injera within reach and tear off pieces to use as an edible utensil to scoop up food.

An Ethiopian meal of a meatless stew, vegetable sides, salads, injera, and cheese balances flavors and textures. Injera offers a sour tang that offsets the spicy, saucy sides. Crunchy peanuts contrast with mild cucumber in a salad that is a cool reprieve from fiery entrées, while fresh cheese with herbs is a creamy, refreshing accompaniment. With injera, some dips and salads, a stew (or pasta), and fresh cheese, you’ll have an ideal Ethiopian-inspired meal. Just make sure to leave room for dessert, which typically is sweetened Ethiopian coffee―probably the country’s best-known export―and a slice of fresh fruit. It’s a meal that would do any Ethiopian host proud.