I’ve been wanting to do a mini-series like this for a while. Since re-dedicating myself to vegetarianism at the beginning of the year, a lot of my meal inspiration has come from international cuisines. I’d like to feature some of them here in the hopes of inspiring others to go meat-free, or at least to try something new. Here in the U.S., the average diet is not terribly conducive to vegetarianism. Many of us were raised with meat at least twice a day, and with the idea that the massive amount of meat in our burgers or piled on pizzas constitutes a reasonably sized “serving.” For much of the world, though, and throughout much of history meat has been a rarity. Many cultures have also embraced vegetarian or semi-vegetarian lifestyles for religious reasons. Indeed, Buddhism also played a role in my own decision to try vegetarianism again.
I’m starting with Ethiopia because I’ve been on a bit of an Ethiopian cooking kick lately. Ethiopia is a country located in the horn of Africa which has a very distinct language and culture. Unlike most African countries, it never experienced a prolonged colonial period–though it was briefly colonized or occupied by the Italians, depending on how you read that. The country’s long history of independence allowed it to develop a unique culture, and religious diversity including large Muslim and Orthodox populations also shaped the diet. Many dishes are vegetarian, and you generally will not find pork in Ethiopian meals.
Important terms to know if you visit an Ethiopian restaurant are wat, which basically means stew, and injera, which is the name of the tangy flatbread with which most meals are served. If you are out eating Ethiopian, you will probably want to order a combination of dishes that will be served family style, generally on top of or alongside injera. Some great vegetarian options are Mesir or Yemisir Wat (lentil stew), Shiro (chickpeas), and Spinach Wat. Many restaurants will also have other options. Grabbing a piece of injera and digging in with your hands is part of the mealtime experience, so eat with people you like. And make sure to finish with a strong Ethiopian coffee.
If you want to try making this food at home, I’ve found some dishes that are surprisingly easy to make. The hardest part is often finding the right combination of spices. Some of these dishes rely on things you might not have around the house like cardamom, a spice with a very distinctive and earthy smell, and tumeric, which gives food a yellow tint. If you have trouble finding these spices, try Whole Foods. They usually have a rack of spices in small sizes which are reasonably priced and come in small cardboard boxes. Less money, less extra spice if you decide not to use it again, and less packaging. I enjoyed this recipe for a chickpea wat, which was easy to make. This site also has a number of meat and non-meat recipes to try. I made the Mesir wat last night, and I recommend adding more water than the recipe calls for as mine was a little dry. I also used dried ginger and garlic, and I think fresh would have worked better in this case. I have yet to try making injera–I hear it’s difficult to do well unless you have hard-to-find teff flour, but the site linked above has a few options if you’re adventurous. Otherwise, the food is just as good over rice. Enjoy!
For more on Ethiopian cuisine:
- Wikipedia’s Ethiopian Cuisine page
- Zemams Restaurant–a great place in Tucson and an informative website
- Ethiopianrestaurant.com–lots of recipes and articles on Ethiopia