Behind the rise of the Ethiopian food trend

16 September 2021, 08:54 AM
  • Curious cooks, spice lovers and vegans are looking to the Horn of Africa for inspiration, says Sally-Jayne Wright
Behind the rise of the Ethiopian food trend

Mountainous, landlocked Ethiopia shares borders with Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and south Sudan. We’ve known for decades it produces sublime Arabica coffee and now it’s being appreciated for its cooking, too.

Waitrose magazine named Ethiopia as one of its tastes of 2021. In September, online retailer Tastesmiths launches its Ethiopian curry kit. A year after the first lockdown, a BBC Good Food writer suggested that instead of sourdough, readers might like to have a go at making injera – Ethiopia’s staple of fermented pancake.

At a street food stall in London, I tasted a stew made from spiced chickpea flour. Is all Ethiopian food like that?

Depends on your viewpoint. In Celia Brooks Brown’s World Vegetarian Classics, she writes: “In the face of deprivation, and with the blessing of a host of flavourful ingredients from Asian immigrants, a vegetarian cuisine of global significance has evolved.” On about 180 fasting days a year – Ethiopian orthodox Christians abstain from meat, eggs and dairy. This has led to a plethora of imaginative pulse and vegetable dishes.

What are the key ingredients?

A spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh, berbere spice mix, peanuts, chickpeas, spinach, pumpkin and cornmeal, as well as injera or sourdough flatbreads made from teff.

Oh yes, teff. The grain used in those sour pancakes that look like tripe which they use as edible plates.

Teff is actually a tiny seed high in prebiotic fibre, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, iron and a source of potassium, C and B vitamins. It’s gluten-free, contains 12 grams of protein per 100g of product and is grown in the US as well as Ethiopia.

Remind me what’s in berbere spice?

It’s like garam masala; everyone’s recipe is slightly different. The mix sold at Spice Mountain in London’s Borough Market contains black pepper, paprika, fenugreek, allspice, ajowan (Bishop’s Weed), ginger, cumin, coriander, chilli powder, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and bird’s eye chillies.

What’s behind the trend?

With real life travel trickier, foodies are exploring exotic cultures via their stove tops. Vegan meals are up 45% and vegetarian 25% year-on-year (Kantar), and Ethiopian recipes are ideal for plant-based eating.

Don’t Ethiopians eat meat?

They most certainly do. In fact, kitfo or steak tartare with spiced clarified butter is one of their most famous dishes. Spice Mountain recommends trying berbere in a slow-cooked lamb shank stew, and Trend Watch has used it to give cottage pie a twist.

Is there a downside?

Ethiopian cuisine is highly aromatic; dominant flavours include fenugreek and korerima or false cardamom, which consumers either love or hate. Kayleigh Davies of thespicery.com in Bristol said reviews for their Ethiopian spiced recipes were “a bit Marmite”. A vegan herself, she loves this kind of food.

Teff products and Ethiopian coffee are not cheap, which reflects their superior nutrition and quality.

What drinks are typical?

Africa’s largest producer of honey puts 80% of it into tej, or mead (fermented honey wine). If you can’t find imported tej, try a local mead producer such as Peckham-based Gosnell’s. Ethiopia is thought to be where coffee was discovered, though Yemen may be where coffee was first drunk. There are three main types: forest or wild coffee, plantation or intensively cultivated, and garden or small-scale homestead – where most beans come from. Flavour notes range from citrus, to floral, to tropical fruit.

Whose products do you recommend?

Buna Oromia Coffee can supply a variety of organic single estate coffees. Try also London Coffee Roasters or The Ethiopian Coffee Company. Edinburgh roaster, Luckie Beans, won two Great Taste Award stars last year for their Lucky Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Dumerso coffee. The Yirgacheffe region is famous for very aromatic, light and elegant coffee.

Lovegrass Ltd make an excellent Ethiopian teff penne pasta which won a Food Matters Live award in 2018 and also a Free From Award in 2019. Their Crispy Teff Flakes are offered on Ocado. Tobia Teff supply products from teff grown in Spain; Trend Watch greatly enjoyed their gluten-free teff bread – delicious with cheese – and their ready-made injera crepes. Dove’s Farm, Lovegrass, Tobia Teff and Suma produce teff flour.

How do I make the most of the trend?

• Delight customers by putting Ethiopian stews on your café menu
• Consider injera-making classes and videos
• Display spice kits and teff flour alongside cookbooks such as Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa by Yohanis Gebreyesus

Will the trend last?

Come the winter lockdown – if there is one – we predict that former sourdough enthusiasts will be comparing their injeras on Instagram, provided they can get teff flour. There’s an art to perfecting them, which is half the attraction.

Alex Whitehouse, CEO of Premier Foods, who commissioned the Kitchen Cooking Index Report into mealtime trends (YouGov and Kantar, February 2021) said, “One of the most striking trends, one we saw before the pandemic and one which will likely continue long after it, is the desire for big bold flavours and tastes.” You can’t get much bigger and bolder than Ethiopian.

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