Ethiopian Etiquette: Eating

Injera with Ethiopian stew

Ethiopian dining is unique in many respects; there are few cultures that share similar methods of preparation and consumption when it comes to food. Today, there is an abundance of western options at most restaurants and hotels, but you will no doubt encounter and eat Ethiopian food during your visit. 

Most Ethiopian food is served alongside injera, the staple food of the country. Injera is a flat, soft, and spongy bread. It can be made with different types of grains and therefore comes in a few different flavors and colors. Generally, it has a tangy, almost sour taste, but the flavor is not overpowering at all. Usually, a few different wots will be served with injera. The wot is the traditional dish of Ethiopia and are mixtures of vegetables, meats, spices and sauces. Usually, wots are spicy, but there is an extraordinary variety including non-spicy options. Wots are served on top of injera - the bread will be rolled out into a sheet with the wots placed directly on it; the injera acts simultaneously as a plate and a utensil.

Most traditional Ethiopian food is eaten with the hands; this is done by tearing off a piece of injera, using it to grab some food, and putting it directly in your mouth. For those new to this, it can feel awkward at first, but most people end up having fun with it. Foreigners are rarely familiar with Ethiopian etiquette, so here are a few things you should know beforehand: 

  1. Traditional meals are eaten from a communal plate, but you should not reach all the way across to the other side to grab food; eat what is close to you.
  2. It is polite to eat with your right hand - the left is considered unclean and therefore you should avoid using it if you can (although you will receive some forgiveness for being a foreigner). 
  3. There will always be a way to wash your hands before and after the meal. Sometimes a waiter will bring a basin and pitcher to the table. When this happens, hold your hands over the basin and they will pour water over your hands. 
  4. Don’t be shy! It’s okay to get your hands covered in food and it’s not always easy to grab the food you want with a piece of injera. It’s also okay to grab food directly with your hands, although it’s usually easier to use the injera anyway.
  5. When greeting people at a restaurant, often they will have already washed their hands, or they will be covered in food. In place of a handshake, they will offer you their wrist; lightly grasp their wrist but do not shake it. If your hands aren’t suitable for a handshake either, you can touch your wrist to theirs. 
  6. The gursha is a gesture that you may encounter - this is when a person will put food into your mouth. It is a gesture of respect and it is courteous to accept it.
  7. Especially if you are dining in an Ethiopian’s home, you will almost certainly be urged to keep eating even after you are full. When you are finished, you may have to insist a few times that you have eaten enough. Leave some food unfinished on your plate - this is a sign that you have had your fill. 
  8. If you are invited into someone’s home: Take your shoes off if they remove theirs, greet everybody present individually (starting with oldest first), and allow any elders to begin eating before you do. If you accept an invitation to eat at an Ethiopian’s house, it is very impolite to refuse food or eat little once you are there; make sure you are comfortable with Ethiopian food beforehand.

Because of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, many Ethiopians fast two days a week; Wednesday and Friday, in addition to the two months of fasting before Easter (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates Easter later than other Christian sects). On these days, they do not eat or drink until 3pm and also refrain from eating animal products (except for fish). Some restaurants do not serve meat on these days of the week, although you can always find a hamburger if you really want one!

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