Introduction to Eritrean Cuisine
If you like Ethiopian cuisine, then I guarantee you will also love Eritrean cuisine. This is because the two cuisines have much in common and share many of the same dishes. Although in some cases they have different names for those dishes.
Perhaps this close similarity is not too surprising, given the interwoven histories of the two countries. Just three decades ago, Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia, but after a long and bloody struggle it finally (re)gained its independence.
The traditional food eaten in these two countries is completely different from any other African cuisine. For that matter, it’s completely different from any other cuisine in the world.
My Experience with Eritrean Cuisine
While I’ve spent three weeks traveling around Ethiopia, I’ve unfortunately not yet had the pleasure of visiting Eritrea. However, I have eaten in Eritrean restaurants many times.
So, I’m writing this article based on those experiences in Eritrean restaurants and on the online research I’ve done. If you spot anything I’ve gotten wrong, please let me know in the comments below!
My personal introduction to Eritrean food took place in Geneva, Switzerland, where I lived for six years. Many Eritreans have sought political asylum in Switzerland, so there’s a sizable Eritrean community there. And a number of these refugees and asylum seekers have opened restaurants.
My absolute favorite restaurant in Geneva is a family-run Eritrean place called The Red Sea. Their all-you-can-eat buffet is the best deal in town!
You may very well come across Eritrean restaurants in other European countries too. Eritreans make up the second-largest group of refugees on the continent and form a significant proportion of the refugees who are still coming to Europe.
What Makes Eritrean Cuisine So Vegan-Friendly?
Even though Eritreans do seem to have a great love for meat, the cuisine of Eritrea is full of naturally vegan dishes. This is largely because of the fasting tradition in the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Many religious Orthodox Christians fast every Wednesday and Friday. They also fast also during Lent, in the days leading up to Christmas, and at other fasting periods. Fasting doesn’t mean that they don’t eat at all; it just means they eat vegan.
If you’re planning a trip to Eritrea, consider timing your visit to coincide with one of the fasting periods. The longest one is the Abiy Tsom (Great Fast), which runs for the 55 days leading up to Easter. Then there’s the Tsome Nebiyat (Prophet’s Fast), which runs for 43 days before Christmas.
There is also a 16-day fast in August to celebrate the assumption of the Virgin Mary. Be sure to check the dates for Eritrean religious holidays, as they are different from the dates observed by Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. You can find all the Eritrean Orthodox fasts marked on this calendar.
Outside of these periods, fasting food is still pretty readily available, except during the holidays right after these fasting periods, e.g. Easter and Christmas. At these times of the year, the locals will be making up for lost time and digging into their favorite meaty dishes, so fasting foods will be harder to come by.
And by the way, similar fasting traditions are followed not only in Ethiopia but also in other Orthodox countries. Asking for fasting food can be a quick shortcut to getting a delicious vegan meal in Greece, Serbia or Russia.
So, once you decide on the dates of your trip to Eritrea, what will you eat when you get there? Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine is unlike any other cuisine in the world. If you’ve never tasted it before, you’re in for a real treat!
How to Eat Eritrean Food
Eat Eritrean Food with Your Hands
The first thing to know is that Eritrean food is eaten not with a knife and fork but with the hands. You will rarely see cutlery on an Eritrean table.
Actually, when I say that Eritrean food is eaten with the hands, what I really mean is that it’s eaten with just the right hand. It’s considered bad manners to use the left hand for eating. That hand is reserved for other things, like wiping your bum after a trip to the bathroom.
Eating with your hand might sound messy, but it’s easy when you have a big piece of taita (sourdough bread) that you can use to mop up the stews and vegetables on your plate.
No Eritrean meal is complete without taita, which is sometimes called injera like in Ethiopia. Even between meals, Eritrean children often eat taita sprinkled with sugar as an afternoon snack.
Stews and Spices
In addition to taita, you will also see the word tsebhi quite often on an Eritrean menu. It means “stew” or “sauce”, and Eritrean cuisine includes a huge variety of these stews.
Typically, small portions of several different tsebhi and other dishes are served together on top of fresh taita. Most tsebhi are made with a special blend of spices called berbere and can be quite spicy.
One exception is alicha, which is flavored with turmeric rather than berbere and is quite mild in comparison. Alicha does usually contain chili peppers, though, so it can still have a bit of a kick to it.
The best way to sample a variety of vegan Eritrean dishes is by ordering a nai tsom migbi. This is a purely vegan combination platter that will allow you to taste a little bit of everything.
Almost every Eritrean restaurant abroad will have nai tsom migbi as a standard menu item. In Eritrea itself, restaurants will always offer these platters on Wednesdays and Fridays (when the locals are fasting), and some will offer them every day of the week.
The nai tsom migbi is often described on English-language menus as a “vegetarian platter”, but in reality, it’s not just vegetarian but also vegan.
Eritrean Traditional Food
Known as injera in Ethiopia, this is the main staple of both Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. It’s a spongy, unleavened, sourdough bread that doubles as both plate and cutlery.
Eritrean meals are typically served on a large, round piece of taita. Small servings of various stews and other dishes are then placed on top of the taita, and you use a second piece of taita to scoop up the stews and shovel them into your mouth.
Taita is traditionally made from teff – a gluten-free grain that grows in abundance in Ethiopia and Eritrea. This makes Eritrean food a great choice for celiacs and people with gluten intolerance as well as vegans.
Nai Tsom Migbi
The equivalent of a yetsom beyaynetu in Ethiopia, this is a vegan sampling platter of several different legume-based stews and vegetable dishes served on top of injera. Most commonly, shiro (see description below) is ladled onto the center of the taita, and other dishes are placed around the edges.
Ordering a nai tsom migbi is a fantastic way to sample a variety of the many vegan dishes that Eritrean cuisine has to offer. If you don’t know what to order, start with this.
This is a very popular dish made from finely ground chickpeas cooked in the spicy red berbere spice blend that flavors so many of the dishes in this cuisine. In addition to chickpeas, shiro is sometimes also made with lentils and broad beans.
There are multiple types of shiro, ranging in texture from thin and soupy to thick and hearty. Meat or butter are sometimes added to shiro, so ask about this if ordering it separately. If it’s part of a nai tsom migbi, you can be confident that it doesn’t contain any animal products.
Also known in Eritrea as timtimo, this is the equivalent of misir wot in Ethiopia.
The word “birsen” means “lentils”, so tsebhi birsen is a stew made from split red lentils that are
simmered in a sauce flavored with spicy berbere.
It’s a very common dish that often appears as part of a nai tsom migbi. There are a number of possible additions that can be made to this basic dish to create different variations, such as tomato, tomato and sliced okra, or sautéed mushrooms.
Since “atakilt” simply means “vegetables” in Tigrinya (the main language spoken in Eritrea), there are many possible variations of this mild vegetable stew. The most common is a combination of cabbage, carrots and potatoes simmered in a light sauce. This is what you’ll usually find in restaurants.
Other vegetables that are sometimes included are cauliflower, onions and green beans. Unlike most tsebhi, atkilt alicha does not contain berbere, so it’s a good choice if you don’t tolerate spicy foods.
This is the equivalent of gomen in Ethiopia. The word “hamli” generally refers to collard greens, which is the most common type of dark, leafy green vegetable eaten in Eritrea.
Other types of greens could also be used in this dish, though, such as kale, chard or even beet greens. The greens are chopped very finely and stewed until tender. This is another dish that almost always features in a nai tsom migbi, and it adds both nutrition and color to the meal.
Also known as fitfit, this dish is made of small pieces of shredded taita that are mixed with lots of sauce from a leftover tsebhi. The taita and the sauce are stir-fried together so that the bread absorbs the sauce and softens. It is typically eaten for breakfast as a way to use up the leftovers from the previous day. Sometimes firfir is made with crusty bread instead of taita.
Balls of barley dough form the basis of this festive dish. They are skewered onto a stick and dipped into a communal pot of sauce.
Tihlo is often served on holidays and at celebrations, especially among Tigrayan communities, both in Eritrea and in the Tigrai area of Ethiopia. While the dough balls themselves are vegan, the sauce they are dipped into is usually a meaty one.
Eritrean Traditional Drinks
Eritrea and Ethiopia are known for growing some of the best coffee in the world. And this is one of few countries in the world where the people not only grow coffee but also enjoy drinking it.
This is partly because of the strong influence of Italian food culture on the region — a relic of Italy’s forays into colonialism in the 1930s.
If you’re a coffee drinker, don’t pass up the opportunity to attend a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony.
This is a long, drawn-out process that starts with roasting the coffee beans over hot coals. Each participant in the ceremony will waft the smoke towards them to smell the aroma of the beans.
Next, the beans are ground by hand using a mortar and pestle. Finally, they are boiled inside a special clay vessel called a jebena.
The host pours the coffee from the jebena into a small cup for each guest. Traditional incense such as frankincense or gum arabic is often burned as part of the ceremony.
Coffee in Eritrea is typically drunk black and with lots of sugar. In some parts of the country, it’s served with ginger and black pepper in addition to sugar.
This homebrew is a kind of beer that people brew themselves from a local grain. If you are invited to a local celebration by a Christian community in Eritrea, you will probably be offered a glass of suwa.
I got the chance to taste something similar at a baptism while hiking through the Tigrai region of Ethiopia. I’ve never liked beer to begin with, and suwa definitely didn’t change my mind about that.
In rural villages, it will probably be served at room temperature, which doesn’t help. It’s also quite grainy and needs to be strained several times before serving.
There’s a similar local Eritrean brew called mess, which contains honey. This name is a combination of the words for “bread” and “water”. It can be made from various grains, including millet and sorghum.
Eating in Eritrean Restaurants Outside Eritrea
The Eritrean food served outside of Eritrea is usually pretty authentic, and you are sure to find many of the dishes described here. In fact, in some ways, eating vegan in Eritrean restaurants outside the country is easier than in Eritrea itself.
This is because you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the day of the week or the many fasting periods. Outside the country, restaurants typically offer a nai tsom migbi year round, and as a vegan or vegetarian this is probably what you’ll want to order.
Sure, they will most likely also have dishes like shiro, tsebhi birsen and atkilt alicha available to order à la carte. But why not just get a big platter and enjoy a bit of everything?
Identifying Vegan Dishes on Menus
Keep in mind that there’s no standardized way of transliterating Tigrinya into English. This means that some of the dishes described in this article may be spelled differently on menus.
Or you may even see the Amharic names that are used in Ethiopia, such as yetsom beyaynetu instead of nai tsom migbi, or misir wot instead of tsebhi birsen. Even if you don’t recognize the name right away, though, the menu will normally include a description of each dish.
While Ethiopian restaurants have become quite well known in parts of North America and Europe, many people don’t realize that the same dishes are also available in Eritrean restaurants.
And in Switzerland and other European countries with large Eritrean populations, you’ll have more luck finding an Eritrean restaurant than an Ethiopian one. So, if you can’t find any Ethiopian restaurants in your area, try looking for Eritrean restaurants instead.
Another thing to keep in mind in restaurants outside of Ethiopia and Eritrea is that the taita (injera) is not always made with pure teff flour. This is because teff can be hard to come by outside these two countries.
And even when available, it’s very expensive. So, even when teff flour is used, it’s often mixed with other types of flour.
The taita will still be vegan no matter what type of flour it’s made with, but if you follow a gluten-free diet you should be aware that taita made with grains other than teff is probably not gluten free. With the growing popularity of gluten-free diets, however, some restaurants are offering to make pure teff injera for an extra charge with advance notice.
Non-Vegan Ingredients to Avoid in Eritrean Cuisine
This is the equivalent of niter kibbeh in Ethiopia, which is seasoned clarified butter. There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the use of tegelese tesmi in Eritrean cooking. It’s true that it’s one of the most common ingredients used in the cuisine.
However, because Orthodox Christians in Eritrea avoid all animal-based foods during fasting periods, tegelese tesmi is generally used only in meat and dairy dishes. For vegetable and legume dishes, a vegan version called ye’qimem zeyet is used instead.
Ye’qimem zeyet is a seasoned vegetable fat made with coconut oil, margarine, or a combination of the two. It’s designed to imitate the taste and consistency of tegelese tesmi.
If you are ordering a nai tsom migbi, you can be confident that ye’qimem zeyet will be used to cook your meal, because the word “tsom” refers specifically to fasting food.
There are, however, some non-vegan variations of typical fasting foods, including variations of shiro that are made with tegelese tesmi, or even with beef. The best approach is to always make it clear that you want fasting food.
This will ensure that your food will be free of all animal-based ingredients, with the possible exception of honey (see below).
Honey is the one animal product that is not prohibited by the Eritrean Orthodox Church on fasting days. Since there is no tradition of eating dessert in Eritrea, you are unlikely to see sweets made with honey on restaurant menus.
Honey does make an appearance, however, in a popular drink called mess, sometimes also transliterated as mes or meis. Mess is a type of mead, or honey wine.
Some cooks will add mess to certain dishes for extra flavor (usually a spicy tsebhi). So, if you want to be sure of avoiding honey then you might want to mention this when ordering too.
Books About Ethiopian and Eritrean Cuisine
Teff Love: Adventures in Vegan Ethiopian Cooking by Kittee Berns
Want to try making some of these delicious dishes at home? Cooking Eritrean dishes yourself can certainly seem daunting.
There are so many unfamiliar spices and powders, and taita takes three days to ferment! But if you’re feeling up to the challenge, Kittee Berns is the one to teach you how to do it.
Even if you don’t end up making any of the recipes in her book, it’s a great source of information about this fascinating cuisine. And the photos are mouthwatering.
Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. by Harry Kloman
This book was written by an American journalist and teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, Harry Kloman. He has become quite an authority on Ethiopian cuisine and culture.
In his book, Kloman takes an in-depth look at the cuisine’s history and culture. He also explores the history of how Ethiopian restaurants emerged in the United States.