No useful thread on Ethiopia for several years, so time for a new report.
The food in Ethiopia is dominated by injera, the local ‘bread’. The good news is that the injera we had in Ethiopia was ALL better than the version we get in Toronto. That has been mostly awful (one exception when we had some freshly made). The authentic version still has a ‘damp spongy’ texture but is flavourful and goes well with the (mostly) stews that dominate.
I’m guessing it’s because in Canada the injera is rarely made from 100% tef – the local grain. This is allowed to ferment giving a sourdoughy flavour, which varies from mild to extremely assertive. We found that ‘tourist-oriented’ places tended to use a milder version (which I was told was about 3 days fermentation vs. the local 5-days). But whatever, it’s probably a ‘love-it or hate-it’ experience and we did not find any way of pre-determining the style so, as a tourist , found no compelling reason to travel a great distance for ‘superior’ injera. Similarly, for the most part, lack of refrigeration meant that most eating places were serving very similar menus, using mostly fresh ingredients. So, summarizing, your hotel is probably as good as most outside restaurants for common items. We tried a couple of more upscale hotel dining rooms – but didn’t generally perceive higher quality/satisfaction for the higher prices.
Having said all that, there could be some places worth seeking out – and we discovered a few. No real point in mentioning the ‘no better/worse than hotel’ places. My basic advice would be to grab ‘less common’ items whenever you see them to provide some diversity.
In Addis itself, the only notable diversion we found was a Chinese restaurant that served pork. I don’t recollect seeing pork anywhere else, so this was definitely a rare sighting. The food was competent, but not really outstanding, but if you need a pork fix, then give China Restaurant (aka China Bar, situated beside the gate to the Ghion Hotel) a try. Mostly Cantonese but a few spicier dishes – and licensed!
In Bahir Dar, there are possibly the most options. Being right on the lake, one hopes for excellent fish – and certainly that is a reasonable objective. We had a ‘tip’ that the freshest fish was obtained (daily) by the Olive Café, Restaurant & Bar. The grilled fish was excellent (and recommended) but the fried fish was overcooked and it didn’t matter how fresh it had once been.
But also in Bahir Dar, we had the best meal of the trip – at a new restaurant that isn’t (yet) in the guidebooks.
A slight aside here, on our search for wine. Given the altitude in much of Ethiopia, the climate is quite favourable to viticulture, and indeed a fair amount of wine is produced. Unfortunately the erratic electricity supply doesn’t support consistent refrigeration, so white wine is rarely found – and we didn’t find any of the reputedly better bottlings.
We were already aware of the Awash brand, acquired by a syndicate led by Bob Geldof as he reportedly thought this the best African wine he’d tasted. One bottle was enough – life is too short to drink Awash wine! It supported our theory that any (OK most) wine with ‘celebrity labels’ is ‘often scraping the bottom of the barrel’. We didn’t try their ‘lesser’ brands, Axumit & Gouder. However, there was one brand that was consistently palatable. Rift Valley Wines (owned by the french company Castel) bottles several varietals (label similar, but capsule is a different colour for easy identification). We ranked the Syrah as our favourite, followed by the Cabernet Sauvignon, then the Merlot. They also produce a cheaper (lesser?) range called Acacia, that was pleasant, but hardly memorable (but we still preferred it to Awash).
Back to the restaurant recommendation – the Castel company have opened a restaurant in Bahir Dar called Castel Kuriftu Wine House & Restaurant. It features all their wines – at the lowest prices we found in Ethiopia. But the great discovery was that the food was exceptional. Plus the view of the sunset is spectacular. Plus they feature a band later in the evenings which plays modern Ethiopian (I presume) music on traditional instruments. Easily the highlight of the trip for food, wine, entertainment and a great view. All very reasonably priced.
We ordered several dishes, but the highlight was the Yetsom Beyaynetu (essentially a vegetarian platter) – served on injera, of course. One of these could comfortably have satisfied two people, without any other orders. Incidentally, that dish is served across Ethiopia (no other version matched this one, although some came close), particularly during ‘fasting days’ when no meat is eaten – and there are more fasting days in Ethiopia than not. There is a similar dish (in terms of presentation) containing meat (usually lamb – which is used interchangeably for both sheep and goats), called Maheberawi.
In Lalibela you’ll almost certainly be tempted by the Ben Abeba restaurant – Scottish/Ethiopian cuisine. It’s not bad – a bit on the expensive side, but offers dishes that nobody else in the country serves. Authenticity is not their guiding principle, but if you’re sated with local cuisine, this is a competent alternative. It features dishes such as ‘Shepherd s Pie’ (although it uses beef as the protein!). The architecture is either spectacular or demented, depending on your viewpoint, with the kitchen located about 3 ‘spirals’ away from the food deck. Its location captures all the wind currents, so we found it quite chilly – although in the hotter seasons, that could be an advantage. Probably justifies one visit – but we didn’t return.
And essentially the aforementioned were the only places that justified a detour.