Famed chef  Marcus Samuelsson shares the secrets of his native cuisine.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

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.


Ethiopian essentials

Some of the common ingredients in Ethiopian cuisine are available at large supermarkets or ethnic grocery stores.

Coffee: Ethiopia has been called the home of coffee. The robust arabica bean grows well in the hilly forests and highlands, and the country exports premium varieties from different regions. Depending on where they’re grown, coffee beans have varying notes, from fruity to sharp and acidic. The beverage, usually served after a meal, is such a part of the culture that a coffee ceremony exists to extend hospitality and friendship. Beans are roasted at the host’s home, then ground by hand, and the resulting coffee is strained several times before being poured into cups from a dramatic height.

Teff flour: The word teff in Amharic means “lost” because the grains are the smallest of all whole grains. Due to the popularity of whole grains (and gluten-free options), teff is available in grain and flour forms in health-food stores or from Bob’s Red Mill. Unlike other whole grains, because teff is so tiny, you need to buy the flour form for our recipe (or any requiring teff flour) because a spice grinder won’t be able to break down the grains. You’re more likely to find a mild-flavored, lighter-colored variety of the grain; the darker teff grains have a stronger tangy flavor. Kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, the flour should last up to one year.

Berbere spice: Like ras el hanout of Morocco or herbes de Provence in France, this Ethiopian chile and spice blend varies with each cook. You can have a berbere made solely of dried spices and chiles, or wet blends including garlic, fresh chiles, and onion. Typically, the dried blend contains smoky cumin; oniony fenugreek; toasted and ground pepper―either paprika, ground red pepper, or dried chiles; cardamom; pungent ground ginger; and citrusy coriander. Since few blends are commercially available (though you can find one at www.flavorbank.com), we’ve added a few of the main berbere spices to some recipes.