THE large round dish is big enough to cover the width of the table, its woven round wicker “hat” covers the plate - adding to the intrigue of what is hiding underneath, giving off this heavenly aroma, thick with spices. When at last it is uncovered you can see that the tray is covered in a sourdough-risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture.
On it are a variety of vegetable dishes, lentil dishes, “wat” or “we’t” and milder “alicha” stews that vary in colour from yellow to deep browns tinged with red. Other dishes come along, dry grilled meats and thick “shiro” which can only be described as an earthy flavoured chickpea stew heaven. For some the assault of flavour on the palate is too much - the sourness of the injera, which offsets the spicy flavours of the dishes, proves to be a flavour combination too far, for others the thought of communal hand-to-mouth eating is the greater challenge.
Set for greater things
Even though it may not be for everyone, Ethiopian food is set to take over the world…in a manner of speaking. Already there is evidence showing a great shift in eating habits worldwide that are overcoming the barriers of communal eating. The food-sharing culture is increasingly prevalent with hot pot soups, dim sum, tapas dishes and shared starters becoming a common feature.
As for the flavour, our palates are also becoming more adventurous with huge varieties of international cuisines appearing in virtually all major cities. At present those dominating tend to be French, Thai, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Greek and Lebanese. Despite being a huge continent with a massive variety of different food, African cuisine tends not to feature very often. Nigerian restaurants do crop up occasionally, but it is Ethiopian food that will ultimately become the most widely recognised and loved African cuisine.
There are various reasons for this. Firstly, Ethiopian food, like Indian food, is extremely diverse in taste because of the unusual and unique spice blends it uses. These spice blends are extremely more-ish and since they cannot be found in any other cuisines, the “fix” has to come from the source.
Barts does Berbere
Whilst other African cuisines have dishes that can be found across borders, using similar cooking techniques and ingredients, the only food similar to Ethiopian food is Eritrean - but because of a much smaller population size, Ethiopia’s rival neighbour can’t compare in “food reach”. One such unique ingredient is “berbere” - an incredible blend of chillies, herbs and spices. So popular that UK-based ingredient company, Barts, has started packaging and selling it in stores nationwide.
Another spice used in Ethiopian cuisine is “mitmita”. This very hot blend is used in one of the country’s most loved, and most unique dishes - kitfo. Kitfo is a raw meat dish, similar in texture to a finely chopped tartar, and addictively spiced with mitmita. Having come from a continent where meat is usually barbecued or roasted thoroughly, the appearance of raw meat on an African origin menu makes it stand out. But it is the flavour from the spices that will see Ethiopian food take root, just as Indian food did in the West.
Consider that the first recorded Indian restaurant opened in London in 1809 and 200 years later “curry” becomes the country’s national dish.
Like Indian food, Ethiopian food is also set to spread because of domestic population growth and emigration. According to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, India has the second largest diaspora in the world after overseas Chinese. The overseas Indian community estimated at over 25 million is spread across every major region in the world. The composition of these flows were largely as a result of trade, labour demands combined with population pressures and competitiveness at home.
Ethiopian roots in the world
Whilst the reason for the flows are different, Ethiopians are fast setting up roots in a wide range of countries across the world. And as a country experiencing a population boom - the total population in Ethiopia was last recorded at 91.7 million people in 2012 from 22.2 million in 1960, changing 314% during the last 50 years - this trend is set to continue and grow. The US is currently the most common destination for Ethiopian emigrants. Approximately 255,000 Ethiopian immigrants and their children (the first and second generations) live in the United States. Today, Ethiopia-born immigrants are said to constitute the US’ second-largest African immigrant group after Nigeria. The majority, about 60%, came after 2000 which shows that it’s increasing - and many of them intend to stay, with the high naturalisation rate.
Tracking World Bank remittance flows to Ethiopia, it becomes clear that Ethiopians are settling across the globe. From Israel, Saudia Arabia and New Zealand to various countries in Europe.
As they move, from Europe to Asia, they are taking their food with them and influencing tastes for it wherever they land. In the US the spreading popularity of injera resulted in the setting up of mass injera producers such as Zelalem Injera, now located in Dallas, Texas and Washington. In fact the region’s injera industry is said to earn about $12 million a year with an estimated 4,000 packs sold per day.
Super popular teff
One of the key ingredients of injera is “teff” - a fine grain that grows predominantly in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s popularity was already well evident in the US - the “Teff Company” was set-up there and has been supplying Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the US with the grain for almost 30 years. Recently however, teff has surged further in popularity.
This is because more Americans are embracing Ethiopian cuisine and, like quinoa was, teff has become a super grain and a favourite in health supermarkets because of it’s highly nutritional profile and naturally gluten-free qualities which means it can be substituted for wheat flour in anything, making it lucrative in Western markets. It is so popular that the Ethiopian government routinely bans its export to protect prices from rising inside the country during lean seasons.
In addition the cuisine is suited to a huge variety of food brackets, from vegans and vegetarians to the wheat-intolerant and carnivores. With ingredients that are already causing a frenzy in supermarkets and a strong food culture that sees generations cooking the unique Ethiopian flavours in their new homes, Ethiopian food is set for world domination.