Ethiopia, especially outside of Ethiopia, is known to vegans as a safe food haven. Rich lentil stews and oily braised vegetables with moorish fermented bread. What’s not to love about the idea of eating that every day? I joked for a long time about visiting Ethiopia because how cool would that be? I love Ethiopian food! Well, I finally went, and here’s my story.
Ethiopian Orthodox Fasting
Around 250 fasting days a year are designated by the church in Ethiopia, which effectively means meals must be devoid of animal products on those days. The 40 day lead up to Christmas and the 50-some days of Lent are the largest fasting seasons, but the fasting practice is still maintained on Wednesdays and Fridays during non fasting seasons.
But there is a catch: the month after a long fasting period is a bit of a meaty free for all. Restaurants that might normally abide by an all vegan menu on those days, or at least offer a vegan sampling platter (beyayanet), might not have options beyond shiro (spiced ground legume puree) and firfir (served the same way everywhere, in a mild tomato and chilli berbere sauce).
When to visit
According to my friend in Addis (who is vegan), vegans would be smart to plan their visit to coincide with the fasting holidays, specifically around Lent and Christmas. Buffets with a couple dozen options. All vegan. Maybe I’ll go back in December?
I was in Ethiopia the month after Lent, so I ate a lot of shiro and firfir and spent a lot of energy asking for further vegetarian options where there were none. It’s not like there are no options, but eating the same thing 72 times a day gets tedious.
Lalibela is a UNESCO heritage city of rock hewn churches, obscure symbolism, ineffective bells, beautiful scenery, and mummified bodies sort of on display.
Ethiopia is an incredibly religious country, and the practices and structure of the church are often guided by metaphor, like a 250 metre tunnel through pitch black to represent hell. And for the guide I’m sure it was since there was no way I was getting through that level of insanity without sound effects. I’m in no hurry to do that again (if I want to experience symbolic hell I will just attend a wedding, a baby shower, or any coffee shop in West London on a weekday morning).
At the end of the tunnel we ascended a flight of stone stairs to metaphorical heaven, where the guide began describing a booming rock bell loud enough to call the masses. Imagine a melamine plate lined with kitchen roll and tapped lightly with one prong of a fork. Ding. Except not.
Two of the churches we visited had a few bodies scattered around, but the only pictures I have are of mummified feet and this is a food and travel blog. I know my sentiment is contradictory to the growing trend of photographing your feet next to food and posting it on Instagram with a filter that makes your meal look like it was cooked in 1970 and you only just got around to eating it. Sorry.
In Gondar we visited the royal castles and King Fasilides’ bath. Once a year (during epiphany) the bath (a pool) is filled up, a priest blesses the space, and the boys and girls engage in symbolic re-baptism and weird dating rituals. When a boy likes a girl he throws a lemon at her, and if she accepts it, which I’m sure happens all the time because nothing says romance like concussion by citrus fruit, they can go on a date. In news of me not being sarcastic right now see the previous sentence.
If you aren’t into having to cover your lady head, being banned from certain rooms for having lady parts, and being generally frowned upon for not being a man, you might want to skip the church scene.
Worth visiting if you’re around Gondar is the Ploughshare Women’s Crafts Training Center, built to provide training and opportunities for disadvantaged women. They sell a lot of their goods, including pottery, scarves, and baskets, all made on site, and it’s a worthy cause to support.
We spent one night in Kossoye, on the edge of the Simien Mountains, at an eco lodge with the most glorious back yard you could imagine, complete with thorny bushed fruits that make you blind if you eat them (I bonded with a thorn and only experienced extreme radiating arm pain). I ate spaghetti on injera at the lodge, which is a thing and it’s good.
Ethiopian food is consumed with a fermented pancake like bread called injera, which is broken off and used to collect a bite of food before placing it in your mouth. There are no utensils.
Ethiopia has history with the Italians, so it’s no surprise to see pasta dishes on most menus. Spaghetti on injera is an unlikely combination that works because any tomato based sauce will complement the fermented bread. Eating spaghetti with hands? Well, you can imagine how that went.
Juices in Ethiopia tend to be more like smoothies, and are often presented beautifully in layers of whatever fruits you have requested or based on what is currently in season. Avocado is popular, and is slightly sweetened.
Coffee in Ethiopia is very special, taken seriously, and is consumed so frequently that everybody is probably on a constant caffeine high. We attended a brief ceremony (the real deal can take hours), where we saw the beans roasted, ground, and steeped. Sometimes coffee is mixed with rue, a medicinal herb that is like a mellow hoppy lemon mint. A few dunks of the herb imparts a mild but noticeable flavour that isn’t unpleasant but I still can’t decide if I like it with coffee.
If you’re a coffee lover, try asking for a fasting macchiato in a coffee shop in Addis (I enjoyed a great example at Tayst, which is near Greek Club, which is a place everybody in Addis seems to know for some reason).
Despite eating enough firfir for a lifetime, and all of it tasting the same, we did come across a wonderful preparation at Seven Olives in Lalibela that utilised soft dates in the mix. It might have been one of the nicest things I’ve ever eaten.
Ambo is a brand of fizzy water that is explosive and is the best thing you will ever drink on a hot afternoon. Also, Ambo is impossible to drink quickly because the bubbles seep into your sinuses and your head explodes. There are also fruity flavoured varieties but they are gross so give them a miss.
The beyayanet, when you can get one, is a great option for trying a lot of different dishes, and is suitable for sharing with one or two other people. Typically it will include a few lentil dishes, at least one salad, shiro, and some cooked vegetable stews. Failing that, nearly every menu will offer fasting shiro and quite possibly firfir. Dabo firfir is worth looking for, especially on breakfast menus, for a change. Dabo is a dense leavened wheat bread that makes for a tasty and filling breakfast.
Okay, that’s it. I’ll leave you with a horrible catchy old song in Amharic.