A hidden gem for vegan food

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Cathy is a vegan who lived in Ethiopia for two years, in the capital, Addis Ababa, with her partner Andy and their daughter Isla, who are vegetarian. Cathy was mostly working for WISE (Women In Self-Employment) helping low income urban women. Here she tells her story of how Ethiopia is a hidden gem for vegan food, as well as cultural and historical sites.

Ethiopia is not most people’s idea of a tourism destination, but in fact it has some of the most amazing tourist sites in the world, including the 12th century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the ancient and huge standing stones of Axum, the so-called Queen of Sheba’s palace and bath near Axum, the chapel in Axum which allegedly holds the biblical Ark of the Covenant, the 17th century ruined palaces of Gondar, the monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, the Blue Nile Gorge, several National Parks, an abundance of endemic species and the fourth highest mountain in Africa.

The climate is pleasantly warm in the Highlands. Even more amazing, Ethiopia is great for vegans. The reason for this is that about half the population of Ethiopia is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. Strict observers of this religion eat only vegan food every Wednesday, every Friday and for several weeks before major festivals such as Easter, Christmas and St. Mary’s Festival. All in all, they are vegan for 208 days of the year.

Ethiopians call this vegan diet “fasting”, indicating that it is supposed to be a hardship. And it’s true that the strictest Ethiopian Orthodox Christians eat nothing from getting up in the morning until about 3pm on fasting days. The fasting days are chosen to represent the day when Christ was betrayed (Wednesday), when he was crucified (Friday) and times of purification before (sad to say) great feasting on chickens, sheep and goats at the long-awaited festivals. But when you look at the variety and tastiness of the “fasting” food on offer, fasting periods are not really a hardship at all. And for visiting vegans, the food on offer is a delight. Equally importantly, the country-wide understanding of offering dishes with no animal products means that you can order fasting food almost anywhere and anytime, and when you do so, you can be confident that it contains no animal products.

InjeraThe staple food in Ethiopia is “injera”, a large pancake made of an indigenous Ethiopian grain called teff. The teff is ground, mixed with water and yeast, fermented for 2 or 3 days, boiled with more water, cooled and left to rise, and then finally poured onto a special heated circular injera-making plate and cooked. An injera is about 40 cm or more wide and has a pleasantly bitter and savoury taste. It is served on a large plate with several sauces piled separately on top of the injera, and with extra injera served rolled up at the side. Traditional dishes with injera are eaten with the right hand and no cutlery, tearing the injera by hand and using it as a utensil with which to scoop up the sauces. A common dish is “beyayenatu”, an assortment of vegan sauces served on top of injera.  These vegan sauces include yellow split peas, spinach, kale, spicy lentils, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, braised green beans, salad and another staple food called shiro which is vegan when it is presented as a fasting food.

Eating out in restaurants serving nontraditional food is also easy. Ethiopia was an Italian colony pre WW2 and has many pizza restaurants which feature some vegan pizzas on their menu. And since they are made deliberately as complete stand-alone fasting pizzas, rather than ordinary pizzas just missing the cheese, they are delicious, featuring all the usual ingredients in quantities sufficient to make the pizza satisfying.

The Italian influence is felt not only in the pizza restaurants, but in the names of the coffees served in cafes, some of which offer fasting macchiatos and fasting cappuccinos, made with soya milk. Tomoco, on the Italian street called Piazza, is famed for its coffees to drink on the premises and freshly ground and packaged for taking home as a souvenir. The best bakeries and cafes also make an array of fasting croissants, brioches, sponge cakes, biscuits and extravagant cream cakes.

Fasting ice cream is also widely available, and during prolonged fasting periods such as Lent, the best ice cream parlours (such as Bruno’s, near the Bole Medhane Alem church) offer several tempting flavours of fasting ice cream.

The traditional snacks of roasted barley (called kola) and crunchy cooked and dried chickpeas are also, of course, vegan. And freshly made fruit juices of locally grown mango, papaya, pineapple, avocado and orange are cheap, abundant and delicious.

There are some drawbacks. You will need to be aware that in some areas food hygiene is not always great, and tap water, though it passes all the tests of cleanliness, doesn’t suit the unaccustomed foreign stomach, and so the novice to Ethiopia has to beware of salad that might have been washed in tap water and to do what they can to ensure tap water has not been added to their fruit juice. Most sickness that visitors contract is a simple sore stomach and diarrhoea, but my family has also had more debilitating food poisoning lasting two or three days, and one of us even contracted amoebic dysentery, which is easily treated if you can afford it but a cause of death amongst Ethiopians who can’t afford the treatment.

These saddening facts are ones we should be aware of when visiting Ethiopia, just as we can be aware of the privilege we have to be able to visit such as beautiful country, which deserves to be much better known for its outstanding historical and natural sights, and for its cuisine.

By Cathy

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