The link between food and community in Ethiopian culture is strong, as evidenced by the communal nature of many dishes integral to the cuisine. From special occasion stews to mixed meat-and-vegetable platters served over tangy injera, these staples of Ethiopian cuisine lend themselves well to group dinners and celebrations of any kind.
Ask any Ethiopian what the most important Ethiopian dish is, and they will consistently answer doro wat (also spelled wot). Doro wat was originally specific to Amhara culture, but researchers say that increased mobility within Ethiopia has diminished the cuisine’s locality, and its food traditions have become more widespread. Doro wat thus became elevated as the quintessential Ethiopian dish. Although the stew is almost always on Ethiopian menus, this is more for the sake of diners who don’t have the chance to eat this at home.
Often called the national dish of Ethiopia, the berbere-spiced chicken and egg stew is usually reserved by home cooks for occasions such as family gatherings, religious holidays, and weddings, in part because making doro wat can be very time-consuming. In some families, the preparation begins with killing and thoroughly cleaning a chicken, which is cut into 12 pieces. The number isn’t arbitrary — some say it represents the 12 disciples of Jesus.
Then, onions for the sauce must be finely chopped, and simmered slowly in niter qibe (spiced clarified butter, also spelled nit’r qibe), after which a hefty amount of berbere — a spice blend containing chile peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, and cardamom — is added. Shallots traditionally form the backbone of an Ethiopian wat, or stew. However, in both Ethiopia and D.C., onions are often used instead because they are less expensive and easier to chop. Most recipes also call for fermented butter (basal qibe), because its strong flavor can hold up to hours of cooking. After the chicken stews, a boiled egg is added, with slits cut into it to absorb the sauce.
The Gurage, an ethnic minority from southwest Ethiopia, are a small group but one that has influenced Ethiopian cuisine — both in D.C. and Addis Ababa — through raw meat dishes such as kitfo and the more recently popularized kocho (also spelled qocho), a fermented bread from the enset tree. Kitfo is often compared to steak tartare, though it can be ordered lightly cooked (kitfo leb leb). This minced raw beef is seasoned with mitmita and warm qibe, spiced butter. In this case, it’s important to use lega qibe, unfermented butter, so as to avoid overpowering the meat’s taste. Kitfo is also one of the few Ethiopian dishes that doesn’t call for onions. It’s often served with gomen (collard greens) and ayib (cottage cheese) and eaten with kocho.
Enset, which is crucial to the Gurabe, resembles a banana tree but bears no fruit, earning it the moniker “false banana tree.” A common variation of the kocho recipe calls for the enset’s large trunk to be ground into starch, which is placed in a pit with some yeast. This mixture ferments for up to a year, after which the pulpy mix is shaped into bread, grilled or baked in strips, and served alongside kitfo. As kocho became more popular in Addis Ababa, the culinary trend travelled across the ocean to restaurants in Washington, D.C.
If you are seeking a beverage to accompany Ethiopia’s “national dish,” doro wat, look no further than tej, sometimes called Ethiopia’s national drink — a title coffee also vies for. Tej is a kind of mead, or honey wine, unique to Ethiopia and Eritrea, and it is not for the faint of heart. The sweetness of the honey often masks the brew’s high alcohol content, which can vary but averages around 7-10%, depending on how long it’s left to ferment. Both beekeeping and tej-making are ancient traditions in Ethiopia, dating back at least 2,000 years. Honey is also central to Ethiopia’s agriculture, and the country remains Africa’s largest producer of this “liquid gold.”
In Ethiopia, tej fans can head straight for a tej bet, an establishment specializing in the brew. Tej is easy to make at home; all you need is water, honey, and gesho, a type of buckthorn. Gesho essentially acts as hops, adding a distinctive flavor to the brew. Restaurants and bets (a word commonly used to mean “house,” in this case referring to a place specializing only in a certain dish or drink) in Ethiopia can make their own tej, but in the United States, the FDA limits the sale of home-brewed alcohol. Luckily, tej is imported from Ethiopia, and made commercially in the U.S. at places like Axum Tej and Lakewood Vineyard in the Finger Lakes region.
Shiro wat has historically been known as a peasant food in Ethiopia but is experiencing a revival; in Addis Ababa it is now so popular that there are restaurants called shiro bets that specialize in shiro. Shiro wat is translated as “hot pea flour sauce,” a name that belies its complexity and popularity. Making this dish from scratch is laborious; it involves baking and grinding legumes into a powder, to which seemingly countless spices are added before another round of grinding. Thankfully, ready-made shiro powder can be bought at any Ethiopian market.
Although there are regional variations (and variations depending on a family’s unique culinary leanings), each rendition of shiro wat consistently has onions and broad beans, peas, or chickpeas. A family’s economic status has also determined how shiro is cooked and served. For wealthier families, shiro was historically cooked with butter, onions, garlic, and green peppers. The addition of meat made it bozena shiro, which was eaten with teff injera. In less wealthy households, the stew could be cooked with vegetables and water, and used to moisten injera made from maize or barley.
Just as ubiquitous as doro wat, the vegetarian combination platter, called beyanatu, is derived from the foods Ethiopian Orthodox Christians eat during fasting periods. There are about 250 fasting days for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, 180 of which are compulsory for church members, including Wednesdays and Fridays. On fasting days, Orthodox Christians must abstain from eating animal products, including the omnipresent spiced clarified butter, niter qibe.
The vegetable combo includes a wide range of different dishes ladled in neat piles atop an injera, including gomen (collard greens), fasolia (green beans), beets, kik alicha (yellow split peas with turmeric), and misr wat (spiced lentils). Yetsom beyenatu means that the vegetable dishes have been cooked with oil instead of niter qibe, while beyenatu usually just signifies that the dishes are vegetable-based. Although Ethiopia lost its coastal access to the Red Sea in 1991 when Eritrea gained independence, the fasting plate can include fish, or asa, sometimes allowed during fasting periods.
The mahaberawi, also known as the mixed platter, is an assortment of non-fasting foods. Depending on the restaurant, this can include a combination of meat and vegetable dishes, all scooped onto a communal injera. Which meat dishes are chosen, however, is at the discretion of each restaurant. The mahaberawi usually features key wat (spicy beef stew) and alicha wot (mild beef stew flavored with turmeric). Sometimes, tibs, the counterpart to long-simmering wats, are included. Tibs, usually beef or lamb, are pieces of meat fried with berbere and peppers. The platter can also include yebeg wat (a thick, rich lamb stew), or raw fare such as dullet or gored gored, cubed raw beef.
Dullet, dating back centuries, is a combination of offal featuring chopped liver, kidney, heart, tripe, garlic, and pepper. In the 17th century, the dish simply consisted of chopped-up raw liver from a freshly slaughtered animal. Though it may be an acquired taste, bile traditionally made an appearance in the mix as well. Like kitfo, it can be eaten raw or lightly cooked. The social aspect of the communal mahaberawi platter is highlighted by an affectionate practice called gursha, when a host feeds a guest a mouthful by hand.