The ethical vegan Jordi Casamitjana writes about Ethiopian Vegan food, which has become one of the most popular types of vegan food in the world, and is his favourite “eating out” choice
I don’t normally write about food.
I am not a chef, a nutritionist, a dietician, or even a food connoisseur. I do have some knowledge about vegan food, but I always felt the “market” is already saturated with health vegans and plant-based people writing about it. I prefer to write about animal protection, the philosophy of veganism, and animals, which is what I know more about. However, I decided to temporarily leave my comfort zone and write an article about food. One type of food that I am not an expert on (in fact, I never cooked it), but I am well experienced in enjoying it in restaurants or with takeaways, as it has become my “go-to” food when I am eating out or celebrating something.
I had never heard about it when I grew up in Barcelona. I had never seen it in the first years of my life in the UK when I was still an active meat eater. I tried it for the first time in over a decade after having become vegan. But once I tried it, I thought it was something quite special. Now, it’s my favourite restaurant food, and I eat it at least once a month.
Something happened that made this practicable to me. I do not have to order it from a long distance away and pay a lot for it. I do not need to travel far to the North of London where most vegan restaurants are in the city where I live. I only need to go out and look for vegan eateries near me, and if I do so, the chances are that the speciality of whatever eateries I find is precisely this type of food. The odds are, exactly, three to one. I live in the south of London, not too far from the city centre, and I have four fully vegan restaurants within 30 minutes’ walk from my flat. Three out of the four are Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants, and they were all opened in the last three years, many years after I already decided that Ethiopian food was my favourite “eating out” ethnic cuisine. How amazing is that?
Considering that, according to the app Happy Cow, there are about 200 fully vegan eateries in London (more than 15 being Ethiopian or Eritrean), having three Ethiopian restaurants within 30 minutes’ walk from me is really fortunate. Restaurants that serve authentic food that was already vegan before the word “vegan” was coined in 1944. Restaurants cooking food from one of the most vegan-friendly countries in the world, which most vegans are not even aware of. Restaurants that offer healthy vegan food that only includes plant and fungi-based ingredients, and none of the ultra-processed fake meats and fake cheeses that I try to avoid now. Restaurants that are run by vegans of the Global Majority in places they are still marginalised. Restaurants that do not need to import many ingredients from long distances away and can source most of them locally. Restaurants that feel exotic and special, and serve colourful food that tastes delicious.
Restaurants that tick all my boxes (the health box, the social justice box, the environmental box, the spirituality box, the animal rights box, the taste box, the exotic box, the convenience box, etc.).
Too many conjunctions to let this one pass.
I ought to write about Ethiopian and Eritrean food.
A Bit About Ethiopia
For those who geography is not their strong suit, Ethiopia is a landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa (that bit of the African continent that resembles a horn, located on the easternmost part of the African mainland, under the Arabian peninsula) bothering Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the east and northeast, Kenya to the south, and Sudan and South Sudan to the West.
Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia not long ago, but the split up was mainly because of a border dispute that led to a violent war, as well as because of some ethnic and religious differences. Eritrea was a former colony of Italy and then a British protectorate until 1952, when the United Nations decided to federate it with Ethiopia, hoping to reconcile Ethiopian claims of sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. However, in 1962, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, triggering a 30-year war of independence led by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and later the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Eritrea finally gained its independence in 1993, and in 2018 Ethiopia formally ended the state of war and restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.
A widespread famine affected Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985, leaving 300,000 to 1.2 million people dead, 2.5 million people internally displaced, and 400,000 refugees left Ethiopia. The combination of recurring droughts, crop failures, government policies, and conflict was the cause.
Ethiopia is quite unique compared with other African countries. It’s the only one that was never formally colonised by a foreign power, except for a brief occupation by Italy from 1936 to 1941 (during WWII). It has maintained its independence and sovereignty throughout its history, which has contributed to creating its unique cuisine.
The geography of Ethiopia also has had an effect of having a distinct flora and fauna different from other countries in Africa so close to the Equator. This is because most of the country is composed of high mountains (also called the Abyssinian Highlands) where the temperature is much lower than people expect (the predominant climate of the Ethiopian Highlands is Alpine). Species like the Ethiopian Wolf (who looks more like a fox) or the Gelada Baboon (with very long fur) are adapted to such cold climates, but also species of plants, such as teff, a grass from Ethiopia and Eritrea that contains an ancient grain key to Ethiopian cuisine.
Ethiopia has its own alphabet (33 letters and 7 orders), time system (6 am in Ethiopia is equivalent to 12 pm in Greenwich Mean Time), and calendar (seven years behind the Gregorian calendar, and each year has 13 months, with 12 months of 30 days each and one month of 5 or 6 days depending on whether it is a leap year or not). There are five official languages spoken in the country: Afar, Amharic (the official working language), Oromo, Somali, and Tigrinya (commonly spoken in Eritrea).
Ethiopia is the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world. It is said that the church traces its origins to the first century CE when Philip the Evangelist converted an Ethiopian eunuch who was a high official of the queen of Ethiopia. As we will see later, this church has a distinctive approach to food that explains why Ethiopian vegan food is easy to find. Today, Christianity is the country’s largest religion in Ethiopia with over 62.8% of the population while Islam is the second-largest religion with over 33.9% (this is another difference with Eritrea, which has fewer Christians, and most are from the Coptic Orthodox Church).
What is Ethiopian Food?
That is a relatively easy question to answer, as is the food traditionally eaten in Ethiopia, which is distinctive and different from other traditional African cuisines. However, we need to be more nuanced as, from the point of view of what an “Ethiopian food restaurant” means when found in other countries, it may not only mean a restaurant that serves Ethiopian food but also Eritrean food (some restaurants advertise themselves as “Ethiopian and Eritrean Restaurant”, though).
As Ethiopia and Eritrea used to be the same country not that long ago, they share many similarities in their cuisine, till the point that, although it seems it is not identical (apparently, Ethiopian food is usually spicier, and Eritrean food uses more tomatoes and has more Italian influence), people less familiar with the subtle differences may lump it all under the term “Ethiopian Food” (as I have done in this article myself). Therefore, I must apologise to the Eritreans if I will not make justice to their culinary idiosyncrasies.
Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine essentially consists of a specific type of sponge-looking soft flatbread known as Injera, which is used both as a plate and to scoop the food without utensils, on top of which several vegetable or meat dishes made of different thick stews or salads are served. The food is often eaten communally from a main platter in the centre of a group.
Due to being forbidden in the major religions, all Ethiopian cuisine does not include pigs or molluscs, but because of the influence of the Orthodox and Coptic Christian Churches — and their specific fast requirements — often it is only composed of vegetables and pulses, making the vegan option the default during various times of the year. Neither cheese nor eggs are part of Ethiopian cuisine — another reason for its vegan-friendliness — but butter is used.
Injera bread is a sour fermented pancake-like flatbread that is traditionally made of teff flour, an ancient grain from the Ethiopian Highlands. To make injera, teff flour is mixed with water and a starter called ersho, which contains bacteria and yeast. The mixture is then allowed to ferment for about three days. The batter is then cooked on a large circular griddle called a mitad, by pouring it in a spiral fashion from the outside to the inside. The injera is baked into large, flat, and round pieces, with a spongy texture and small holes on the surface, and, interestingly, injera is used as both a plate (where the food is served on) and a utensil (you can tear off a piece very easily with your fingers and then you can scoop the food with it).
By the way, teff is said to be one of those super healthy grains. It’s a tiny grass seed (some say the smallest grain people use to eat) with a nutty flavour, and is gluten-free, high in calcium, iron, and protein. It comes in different colours, from white to dark brown, and although it is typically grown in Ethiopia, now is also grown in other countries, such as the US, India, and Australia. Eritrean people may use other grains to make their injera bread, and in other countries, people may use their own combination of grains, especially if they cannot find teff easily. In some of the Ethiopian restaurants I eat at, they always ask you if you want the injera “local” (which means made with local grains) or original (which means with teff, just two pounds more expensive).
On top of the injera, all different types of colourful cook vegetables and meats are served as thick stews (known as Wat or Wot) which come in a variety of flavours and consistencies and can be cooked in vegetable oil or clarified butter. The two spellings are interchangeable. The word “wat” comes from the Amharic word for “stew”, and it is the most common spelling in English, while the word “wot” is the Tigrinya spelling, and it is sometimes used in English to refer to specifically Tigrinya-style wats. However, I asked one of the owners of one of the restaurants I go to, and she was adamant the best English spelling is “wot”, for both singular and plural, so this is the one I will use here.
The stews are served all at the same time arranged in little mounts around the injera “plate”, and they can be quite spicy (outside Ethiopia often the spices are provided separately as a sauce in a small container in case they are too hot for Western tastes). In the restaurants where I eat, they often offer two versions of spicy sauce, one red that is supposed to be hotter and one green that is supposed to be milder — you can, of course, skip the spicy sauce altogether. These sauces are made with oil and a combination of spices, including berbere, a hot red pepper blend, turmeric, and Korarima, a type of cardamom. Berbere is made by mixing hand-ground chilli powder with a handful of other herbs and spices (often ginger and garlic), depending on the preferences of each family and the availability of ingredients.
Usually, you will not find appetizers or desserts at Ethiopian restaurants as they are not a part of Ethiopian food culture, but tea and coffee are (Ethiopia has a strong coffee culture that dates back hundreds of years— and it has a more recent influence from the Italians. Jebena is a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean flask made of pottery that is used to brew coffee.
Vegan Ethiopian Food
The vegan version of Ethiopian food is simply excluding any Wot that has animal products in it and just use vegetables or mushroom Wot on top of the injera bread (which is always vegan), ensuring that only vegetable oil has been used in the cooking, which all Ethiopian restaurants have (and in many that is the only oil they use, as it is cheaper). Each restaurant may choose to do different Wot or cook traditional vegetable Wot differently (Indeed, the three Ethiopian restaurants that I frequent may look like they are cooking the same food, but the flavours of the different Wot are distinctive, and not all offer the same Wot).
Here are some examples of very common traditional Wot suitable for vegans:
- Shiro is made from ground chickpeas or lentils. Although there are regional variations, each rendition of Shiro Wot consistently has onions and broad beans, peas, or chickpeas. There are now places where you can buy “Shiro powder”, a dry mix of chickpea flour with the flavouring spices already added.
- Atakilt Wot is a spiced cabbage, carrot, and potato stew.
- Misir Wot is a red lentil stew, made with berbere.
- Atir kik is a yellow split pea stew made with turmeric. Traditionally, this dish is cooked until the peas are very soft and mushy.
- Tikil gomen is a curried variation with shredded cabbage and carrots, flavoured mainly with turmeric and then simmered with onions, garlic and ginger.
- Omen are collard greens boiled, chopped, and seasoned with garlic and seeded, diced jalapenos. Spinach is often used.
- Fasolia is green beans cooked with onions, garlic, and tomatoes.
- Ingudai Tibs is made from portobello mushrooms that are marinated and sautéed with red onions, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers as well as a blend of spices.
- Azifa is a cold green lentil salad spiced with Senafich (mustard)
- Salads can also be found in platters. Often, salads are tossed with vinegar dressing and mixed with red onions and jalapenos. Some examples are salata (romaine lettuce salad), azifa (green lentil salad), and timatim salata (diced tomatoes), atkilt salata (boiled potatoes, red beets, and carrots in a dressing of lemon, jalapeno, and spices).
These are just some examples of the most popular Wot and salads, and some of these may be named differently in Eritrean restaurants.
There is a term for a whole meal that only has vegetarian Wot and is therefore vegan. It is called Yetsom Beyenatu, meaning the vegetarian platter, so if you go to an Ethiopian restaurant that is not vegan, you can look for that name rather than having to select individual vegetable Wot to go with your injera. The “Yetsom” part means that the vegetable dishes have been cooked with oil instead of niter qibe (Ethiopian Spiced Clarified Butter), and yetsome megebe means “food eaten for fasting days” (next chapter will explain the significance of this).
Why Ethiopian Food is So Vegan-Friendly?
Ethiopian food is one of the most vegan-friendly cuisines in the world, and veganism has been part of Ethiopian culture for centuries. The answer of why that is the case may surprise many people, though. You probably know about Lent, the Christian religious observance in the liturgical year commemorating the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert. As such, devout Christians abstain from some foods during that time. You may have heard they abstain from the flesh of terrestrial animals for 40 days, but they eat fish, eggs, and dairy. But that is only in some Christian denominations (such as Roman Catholics). Others go far beyond, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is probably the one that goes further.
Under this Orthodox church, fasting is called there tsome, and lasts for 55 continuous days before Easter (Fasika), and it involves the abstention from all animal products. This means meat from all animals (including fishes), dairy, and eggs. It also involves refraining from eating or drinking before 3:00 pm. So, essentially, Christian Ethiopians only eat vegan food for almost two months every year (15% of the year), at least. But it does not end there. During the year there are seven distinct fasting periods, and most devotees follow a fast from 165 to 250 days, which may include abstaining from all animal products every Wednesday and Friday. This means up to 70% of the year most strict Ethiopian Christian devotees eat a vegan diet. Not surprisingly, some have decided to go all the way and become vegan (and this is another example of vegans entering the “vegan mansion” through the spirituality gateway, like the Jains). However, I assume not many Ethiopians are ethical vegans on animal rights or environmental grounds (although I do not have any data to support this), and I think it is likely that the percentage of ethical vegans among Ethiopians is greater in those living in other countries than in Ethiopia itself.
The long arm conflict, the political situation, and the famine made many people leave Ethiopia since the 1970s, now living all over the world. In 2019, Ethiopian government sources estimated there were more than 3 million Ethiopians living in other countries. In the 2000s, it did not require a great epiphany for Ethiopian chefs (or simply people whose parents or grandparents used to cook in Ethiopia) living in countries with a high prevalence of vegans such as the UK or the US, to realise that they could open fully vegan Ethiopian restaurants there, and they just needed to serve what it is normally served at least 70% of the days in the home country. So, they did, and Ethiopian vegan restaurants become more and more popular in the Western world — and here I am, writing about them.
I asked Beza, the vegan owner of the first vegan Ethiopian restaurant — also called Beza — that opened in London’s Elephant & Castle area, how her restaurant was founded. She said, “I started in the busy and vibrant Camden market, where I was always focused on traditional Ethiopian food which I was taught all by my lovely grandma. She has been a great inspiration as a vegan herself, so she’s the one that guided me in opening my beautiful restaurant in Elephant Park and inspiring more people on how being vegan is. At my restaurant, I only use the freshest and most local ingredients to create authentic Ethiopian dishes that are both delicious and nutritious.”
I also asked her about the differences between vegan Ethiopian restaurants in Ethiopia and elsewhere. She said, “Restaurants In Ethiopia mainly turn vegan during fasting seasons. Every restaurant does have a vegan menu 365 days a year, but for fasting seasons, they do stop the normal menu to sell vegan food more. The Ethiopian food there and here is very similar, but you might find one or two differences. You can be very creative with vegan stews because we can use basically any veggies we find.”
Another reason for the popularity of vegan options in Ethiopia is that they are cheaper than meat options, and in a country that has experience famine and there is still poverty, that is an important factor. As Ethiopian vegan food is composed of basic ingredients relatively easy to obtain and cultivate, this is why they are cheaper. Indirectly, another factor that may have contributed to being a vegan-friendly country is the fact Ethiopia is a landlocked country with not much fishing going on (only around the big lakes they have), and that, coupled with the fact the abstinence of flesh in the Eastern Orthodox fasting also includes the flesh of fishes, must have helped.
There is another connection between Ethiopia and veganism. This is through the Rastafarian religion and culture. Many Rastafarians are vegan, and part of their heritage is linked to Ethiopia. Rastafarians believe that Ethiopia is the Promised Land. Rastafari is a religion that developed in Jamaica in the 1930s, following the coronation of Haile Selassie I as King of Ethiopia in 1930. Rastafarians believe Haile Selassie is God, and that he will return to Africa members of the black community who are living in exile as the result of colonisation and the slave trade. Rastafarians regard themselves as the descendants of the Israelites who were enslaved and dispersed by colonialism and the slave trade. Also, Rastafari was influenced by Ethiopianism, a political and religious movement that emerged among African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Other Good Things About Vegan Ethiopian Food
The three Ethiopian vegan restaurants closer to where I live are Beza, Addis Kitchen, and Rhoda, but I have tried others in London, including Ethiopian stalls in markets. They all have their distinctive character within the same framework of traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean food (injera + wot + salads), so I try to use them all equally, to spread my custom fairly. Having been a customer of Ethiopian eateries for years, I concluded that this is my type of “eating out” food not only because I like the taste, textures, and looks, but because of many other additional things I decided to count as pluses. Here are a few:
I find the atmosphere of Ethiopian restaurants always cosy and nice, and the people running them very friendly. I don’t know what it is, but there is something very homely in all the Ethiopian restaurants I have eaten. Although I don’t have direct African ancestry (we all have an indirect one, though) and I have only visited two African countries in the very south, I kind of feel “at home” in Ethiopian restaurants, even though I am unfamiliar with most objects, paintings, and photographs in them.
Perhaps linked to my previous point, I have always found the colour palate of Ethiopian restaurants very pleasing. It’s warm and full of earthly colours, as well as natural materials (wood, wicker, etc.). They often have Ethiopian pottery and baskets, including the mesob, a woven round wicker basket three or four feet tall that works as a table for the injera (you can see some of these in the photo above). It has a decorated conical lid to keep the food warm before eating. Traditionally, each diner would sit around it on a small stool, about eight inches high, called a barchuma, and everyone then eats from the common tray of food where the injera is placed.
Although that is not how I commonly eat Ethiopian food, I like the fact that is a food fun to eat with a group of people, as there is this sharing element I find nice (no individual dishes, just a platter for everyone) and the attempts to scoop food with the injera bred may lead to a few funny incidents (I am not very good at it, so I often use a fork — you can request one if you need it, but you will not find it on the table if you don’t ask).
The practicality of the food as a takeaway is really a bonus for me. Restaurants can put all the Wot in a container and give you the injera bread separately (rolled in a bag), so you can ensemble the whole thing at home (or wherever you will be eating it) as you see fit. Also, for those who do not like Injera (it has a quite unique nutty sour taste), many restaurants offer rice instead (I never had it, though, as I love both the taste and texture of injera bread).
I also like the fact that Ethiopian food is very easy to order, as I always ask for the platter “with everything”— I don’t need to memorise any of the names. The portions for a one-person meal are very generous, and if I order one large takeaway (in some of my local restaurants I have the choice of regular or large), it normally lasts me for two meals (Ethiopian food, including the injera, does not lose quality in a few days, and can easily be reheated). Ah, and it’s not expensive food either, as, in the UK, and 2023, a one-person takeaway meal is normally under £11 ($14) — and s it lasts me two days this means I paid about £5 per meal!
The authenticity of Ethiopian cuisine also attracts me. With this I mean that is not pretending to be anything else. There are no “fake” meats in it, it is not a veganized imitation of non-vegan food, and it does not try to imitate popular food formats from other countries. It is its own thing, proud of its identity. It feels like real food to me, as I imagine the original vegan food (the food of those people first rejecting animal-based meals of their tribes) looked like — and the fact that is African means it is one of the most ancient human cuisines there is.
And although perhaps there may be a little bit too much oil for me to adopt as my everyday food, the injera, the fresh whole vegetables, the spices (great anti-oxidants), and the pulses (especially the pulses, as Ethiopian dishes have a variety of them), makes it one of the healthiest vegan cuisines I know. You see, I try to consume less (focusing on what I really need), better (from a health and ethical point of view), and kinder (giving my custom to those who need it the most), so eating out is something I do not do often now. But when I do, if I am not trying a new place, Ethiopian restaurants are my treat — oil and all.
There are social aspects I like about this food too. So far, all the Ethiopian restaurants I have been are run and staffed by Ethiopian or Eritrean immigrants (or their close descendants). I like to support Black vegans as I am aware I live in a country where racism is still far too common, so the fact that my money goes to vegan businesses (and not to non-vegan businesses that sell plant-based food) and supports vegans of African origin, pleases me. Recognising my privilege, I am one of those ethical vegans who is very welcoming to social justice vegans and BIPGM (Black, Indigenous, and People of the Global Majority) vegans, so I am happy to support vegan businesses run by them in countries like the UK.
So, Ethiopian food is indeed one of “my things” now, and highlighting all that I like about it is something I think I can do — even if only from the point of view of a satisfied customer.
I don’t normally write about food, but I am glad I wrote about this.