Ethiopian Food and Drink I Scarfed Down as a Vegetarian in 30 Days

As a traveling vegetarian, Ethiopia is quite an easy country to visit. Many national dishes are vegetarian or vegan. These are the Ethiopian food and drinks I wolfed down during my one-month stay in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, and Lalibela.

How to Find Out Which Ethiopian Foods are Vegetarian?

Ever since the start of our journey of learning about Ethiopian food, we’ve used this handy glossary to figure out what’s what. I use ctrl + F or page search to find out which dishes are veg. We basically started with the beyayenetu (በያይነቱ – meaning ‘variety’), which is vegetarian unless otherwise specified, and then expanded our knowledge from there. In my experience, using the word vejeteriyani or ቬጀቴሪያን does not work on people who don’t know English.

As a rule, all food in traditional restaurants in Ethiopia is vegetarian on Wednesdays and Fridays. These two days of the week are always fasting (ts’om – ጾመ) days, and fasting means no meat, no egg, no dairy, and no butter (though honey is okay). Sometimes people eat fish on those days, which is allowed, but you tend to not get fish served on fasting days randomly without specifying. Unfortunately, there is a prejudice that (white) foreigners are passionate meat eaters, so in some restaurants on non-fasting days, people will try to get you to eat the meat. They might be confused when you don’t want to eat meat since most Ethiopians do eat heaps of meat whenever it’s not a fasting day.

The number of fasting days in the Ethiopian calendar totals 250 days out of 365. You can see that fasting only on Wednesdays and Fridays don’t add up to 250. That is because there are many more fasting days, including the 55 days before Easter (fasika – ፋሲካ) and some less famous fasting days. It’s a lot.

Ethiopian Food and Drink Diary

Addis Ababa I: click to open

Arrival in Addis Ababa (Thursday, January 26th)

Sadly, we arrived at Hotel Andromeda quite late, so the reception recommended we order pizza. They ordered a vegetarian pizza for us that Jonas chose from an online menu. He later said that the menu said Debonairs Pizza and that it sounded familiar. I told him that that brand was also present in Mauritius in our street in Quatre Bornes. We’d never eaten pizza from there, but it looked as soulless as the other Mauritian pizza places we did not like.

The pizza arrived and though it did the job of ending our hunger, it wasn’t a great pizza. It makes me a little sad that this was our first meal in what we consider one of the best food regions of the world. We washed it down with beer acquired at the hotel. It’s called St. George beer and it was a decent lager.

The first beyaynetu at Kategna (Friday, January 27th)

Breakfast was included in our hotel. There was ful (similar to the Egyptian ful medames), some spicy firfir, some kind of buckwheat-like grain, vegetables, and fruits for dessert. This was the best breakfast day at the hotel. We also had eggs with breakfast, which were nothing to write home about. There was strong coffee and absolutely delicious avocado juice.

The next day it was our goal to eat the vegetarian beyaynetu. Turns out we were in luck because every Friday is a fasting day. We ended up at Kategna Restaurant, which we had looked up before coming to Addis Ababa. It’s kind of a fancy traditional restaurant where the menu is also in English and it has an entire fasting section. A good place for starters.

We ordered the ts’om beyaynetu and oh my, we have arrived! It was perfection and we were so happy. It was quite busy in the restaurant, so the queue for washing hands was a bit long. We also knew to order Ambo water, which appears to be every Ethiopian’s favorite sparkling water.

There were quite some leftovers, so we took those home in a takeaway box from the restaurant (not free of charge). Next time, we’ll bring our own food boxes.

Yemeni food (Saturday, January 28th)

Breakfast at the hotel, then we went out in the late afternoon for lunch. We walked to the nearby Bait al-Mandi, a Yemeni restaurant. We had a cold mezze plate (hummus, baba ganouch, tabbouleh) with falafel and mulawah bread. Wow, I missed this! No falafel during our entire stay in Madagascar. We took some of this with us for later.

Then we went to the Zoma Museum, where we had a cup of Ethiopian coffee and some cookies. No popcorn or smoke.

In the evening, we finished our Arab/Levantine leftovers and got some Dashen beer from the bottle shop next to the hotel. We checked the prices for a bottle of local wine there, but it was really expensive.

Yetem delivery food (Sunday, January 29th)

Breakfast at the hotel was the usual. For lunch, we went to one of the traditional restaurants within walking distance from our hotel. Once inside, it was extremely tricky to communicate with the guy, because he kept pushing meat (doro wat) or fish (tuna salad) dishes onto us. I kept saying ye’ts’om and ts’om and fasting and vegetarian, but to no avail. Eventually, with great pain and effort, Jonas managed to order a shiro with a tomato (timatim) salad. It was good, but was it worth the pain only to doubt the food the entire time?

For dinner, we weren’t feeling like facing the outside world again, so we ordered food. We had tried different apps before, but they didn’t work. I eventually found an app called Yetem. We ordered food, but then a guy called my phone and told me that the restaurant didn’t have the most epic things I asked for. I asked him which restaurant that’s on the app he recommended instead for vegetarian food. He said Moyos Café. I ordered from there and then he called again to change the order because some things weren’t available.

An hour later, I picked up three boxes of food from downstairs and paid the delivery guy. We had avocado toast, garden pasta salad, and pasta with vegetables. It was really good but also a little too much, so we boxed it up and put it in our hotel fridge for later.

Indian food (Monday, January 30th)

On our last day in Addis Ababa, we wanted to go to OM Indian Bistro. Having completely lost faith in the Ride app, we decided to take an offline taxi to that restaurant. We told the guy where we needed to go, but he didn’t know the restaurant. I told in 20 different ways how to go there, from street name to nearby landmarks, but it didn’t help. He instead suggested we’d go to the second choice of Indian restaurant called Indian Spice. We ordered the paneer butter masala and malai kofta with some naan and chapati.

Since we still hadn’t figured out how traditional Ethiopian restaurants worked at this point, we were so happy to again experience a cuisine and restaurant format that we know intimately. I’m sure we’ll figure out what to order at Ethiopian restaurants during our short trip here, but so far we’re just not there yet.

If we’re coming back to this Indian restaurant or another before leaving Ethiopia, we’re ordering the vegetarian thali for a total feast.

Bahir Dar: click to open

Roadside restaurant (Tuesday, January 31st)

We took the bus from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar. Our noodles were still good, so we packed them as road food knowing that it was unlikely we’ll eat them. The coach bus departed at the ungodly hour of 4:00, so we were too early to still have breakfast at Andromeda Hotel. On the bus, we received a fasting cake (“hule cake”) with a date that looked expired, but it was just the current date in the Ethiopian calendar. We also received water bottles. This was good enough for most of the journey.

At 11:30, we made a stop in a town called Debre Werq in front of a restaurant. Everyone got out to eat or go to the toilet. We ordered a shiro and two cups of coffee. This food really hit the spot. Outside the bus, there were lots of vendors selling roasted chickpeas, barley, and sugarcane, but we didn’t buy any.

In the evening, we ate at the hotel restaurant in Bahir Dar. We ordered tomato salad and shiro tegabino. This last one is basically extra thick shiro and it was mind-blowing. We both loved it so much.

Hotel breakfast + supermarket visit (Wednesday, February 1st)

The next day, we started by exploring the breakfast at Winn Hotel. This was absolutely the best part of the entire hotel experience as they had a lot of variety. Though on non-fasting days, there were also non-veg things in some of the buffet buckets. Gotta stay vigilant.

This first full day, we visited a supermarket we came across and bought a bottle of (expensive) Ethiopian wine. You may laugh, but I’ve never in my life spent €14 on a bottle of dry red and I’ve never missed out. We also bought some other things at the supermarket, like bread and cheese to make it a full picnic. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian mozzarella cheese turned out to be… quite dank.

We also went to the cute café across the street called Coffee Hub. We had a half Ethiopian coffee ceremony there in the form of two cups plus the smoke. But no popcorn, unfortunately. One day we’ll get there.

Three magical stews (Thursday, February 2nd)

The following day, we returned to Coffee Hub for lunch. Jonas already had rapport with the English-speaking owner of this café, so he could easily communicate what we were looking for. They decided on a dish with three stews, one of them a misir wot or lentil stew, a standard shiro wot, and a last one with the (good) crumbly Ethiopian cheese. It was marvellous and we took home the leftovers in two boxes for dinner.

We ended that lunch with a cup of Ethiopian coffee.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Ethiopian coffee ceremony Lalibela

No popcorn, just popcorn

In the UAE and in Turkiye, we have already experienced the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Over there, it was quite standard that we’d receive a full jebena (coffee pot) with three small cups, a pot of sugar, lightly-salted popcorn, and a heap of smoking incense that mystifies the room.

In Ethiopia, we’ve had single cups of coffee without much fanfare in many places, from alcohol shops to museum cafés. In Bahir Dar, we finally had the incense with the coffee at Coffee Hub. But no popcorn! Had I imagined the popcorn? Was I going crazy?

The next step is of course to use Google Translate. Google says popcorn is fanidīsha or ፋንዲሻ. The glossary says it’s fandisha or ፈንዲሻ. Either way, when we started asking for this, everyone still shook their heads. Is it not popcorn season? Is it not traditional? I am clueless and I left space in my tummy for nothing.

Full coffee ceremony at Alem Restaurant, Lalibela

Stomping freshly roasted beans Ethiopian coffee ceremony Lalibela

After the cooking class, one of the women of Alem Restaurant started preparing the coffee while we were eating. She roasted the green coffee beans in a flat pan and brought them to us to sniff after roasting. It smelt marvelous.

She then spent about 20 minutes grinding the coffee by hand in a metal cup with a metal bar. It looked like quite a tough job and I would have loved to have crushed some beans myself if I hadn’t been fingers-deep in my self-made beyaynetu.

By the time we were full, the coffee was ground into a fine powder, like Turkish coffee. She rinsed out the jebena before dropping a couple of teaspoons went into the narrow top. The coffee process had begun.

Some coals went from the fire she was feeding ar with a leathery fan into a tall pot to start the incense. A colorful confetti went on top of the burning coals and the smoke screen started. Again, the smells were amazing.

She washed three cups in a bucket and filled them up with a generous amount of sugar. Alem asked if we wanted sugar, to which we said we’d rather not. The sugar was cleaned out and then the woman poured the fresh and hot coffee into the small cups (sini ሲኒ.) from a considerable height. I received the first one and thanked her, Jonas the second, and Alem the third. Alem told us the name of this first cup of coffee is abol (አቦል) and it is the strongest.

This was an excellent opportunity to ask all my dumb questions, so I asked why the cups are always filled to the edge and not to the thin line inside the cup, and as somewhat anticipated, it’s a hospitality and generosity thing. I asked her at what age she started drinking coffee, and she said at about 15. Kind of the same age when I started experimenting with caffeine. And lastly, I asked about the fresh grass on the floor and around the coffee table (rekebot ረከቦት). This was also a cozy and welcoming thing. People harvest grass outside the city to make their homes a place for guests.

We asked about the popcorn (fandisha) thing, and Alem said that the traditional snack for the coffee ceremony is something she called tereq injera (in the glossary it’s called dirkosh ድርቆሽ). It’s basically dried injera chips. Just plain, no seasoning. It’s also an excellent way to bring some injera home because it stays good for several months if kept very dry (not in the fridge) to let friends and family have a taste of real injera. It can be rehydrated and used in fitfit too. Alem’s sister, who lives somewhere in the Netherlands, sometimes takes this home.

But we were talking about popcorn. Alem said this is more of a recent tradition. We told her we had it everywhere in Ethiopian restaurants abroad and it would be lightly salted. She said it’s a bit sweetened here and asked if we wanted any. Yes! Absolutely.

It was time for the second cup of coffee called tona (ቶና, or hulatona ሁላጦና in the glossary). The same coffee grounds in the jebena are reused for this process, which makes it a bit less strong.

The popcorn arrived when it was time for the third traditional cup of coffee called baraka (bereka በረካ). Since this is the third and last time these coffee grounds are used, it’s not strong at all and has a very mild flavor. I asked at what age kids start drinking this, and Alem said that her four-year-old child would sometimes ask for a cup already, with lots of sugar, of course. Kids are then zooming around on a sugar high all day.

At the end of the coffee ceremony, we thanked the host and Alem. Then it was time to return to our hotel with our two boxes of leftover beyaynetu. This was a truly amazing experience and cleared up so many questions I had.

Introduction to Tana Adam

Tana Adam T'ena Adam Ethiopian coffee ceremony

On a visit to Lalibela market (every Saturday), Mas introduced us to tana Adam or t’ena Adam, which is also known as rue or herb-of-grace. I’d never heard of it before this day. Mas said you swirl around this herb in your coffee to give it an extra magnificent taste. We bought some to bring to Bisrat Café to give to the lady.

Mas told us to be careful to not put the herb in the coffee too long, but I couldn’t taste it by just dipping it twice. I had to swirl it around a bunch of times before could taste a flavor that’s like herby and florally and meant for sweet stuff.

A few days later, we had coffee at Alem Restaurant again and I recognized a bundle of tana Adam on the rekebot. When the coffee arrived, I asked for it and it was immediately understood. I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of this!

Popcorn!

Toward the end of our stay in Lalibela, we went to the famed Ben Abeba Restaurant with its magnificent architecture and sunset view. Guess what was offered to us right upon entry? That’s right, lightly-salted popcorn next to the rekebot and jebena. On a later visit, we had the coffee there with the popcorn without us asking for it, but no smoke. Anyway, I think we’ve done it.

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