People travel anywhere for good food and I am no exception to that. You can’t really experience a place you have never been to unless you get a taste for the local favorite dishes. Injera and Alicha Birsen were high on my list of things to eat when we nailed down our plans for Eritrea. Wondering how could I acquire these foods without traveling to Eritrea?
I am a frequent flyer on Ethiopian Airlines so I was a bit familiar with Ethiopian food which shares similarity with Eritrean recipes. Eritrean food preparation is quite similar to Indian food with a vast array of foods, ranging from diverse varieties of multi-colored spicy stew (curries) and raw vegetables. Being an Indian, I love extensive food preparation with a tinge of spice added to it.
Eritrean food preparation
The foundation of Eritrean meals is Injera, a giant spongy flatbread. It is almost the size of a large pizza. It appears rubbery but it is very soft when you eat it. As per the Eritrean culture, they serve all types of stew on top of Injera on a large circular metal tray. Everyone eats together on the same plate. You tear a strip of injera from the edges and scoop up various stews without using a spoon or fork. The stews are both vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian. The most common accompaniment in all Eritrean recipes is berbere, a spice mix of 16 elements like red chili powder, fenugreek, ginger, garlic, cardamom and cinnamon.
Some of the popular Eritrean stews are:
- Alicha Birsen (lentil curry)
- Shiro (chickpea)
- Zingi (beef stew)
- Dorho (chicken)
- Silsi (tomato sauce)
The world’s smallest grain
Eritrean traditional food Injera is made from teff – the world’s smallest grain. The tiny round grain that flourishes in the highlands of Eritrea is gluten-free and highly nutritious. They ferment teff flour with yeast to prepare thin and soft injera. While the preparation, ingredients and tastes may differ, it is similar to a pancake for Europeans and Americans and similar to a Dosa for Indians.
Multicultural influences and food diversity
Ottoman Empire ruled the coast of Eritrea in the 16th century. The port city of Massawa still reflects its influence in their food recipe. We had yummy food in Massawa with stews made out of okra and spring onion. The food tastes a bit different in this part of Eritrea. We then had a sumptuous breakfast of Shahan Ful, made of fresh bread and fava beans. It is believed to be a Sudanese dish and a popular breakfast during Ramadan and Lent. It was the most delicious breakfast I had during the entire trip.
We found another diversity in food when we visited Keren, the cultural capital of Asmara. Keren is a mix of Turkish, Egyptian, and Italian influences, which is apparent in the recipes. Our guide took us to a local restaurant nestled amid a busy vegetable market. We had a bit of apprehension as it looked like an Eritrean street food stall. The menu was in Tigrinya and the restaurant owner spoke broken English which we could hardly understand. We watched how others were eating to figure out a dish we wanted to try.
The dish was named “Fata”. They first provided us with a loaf of bread and a bowl. With our hands, we cut pieces of bread of a size that was comfortable for us to eat. They took the bowl back to the kitchen and topped it up with spicy plum tomatoes, red onions, eggs and various spices. It was an awesome dish. We craved for more and he obliged us with a slightly modified flavor, which was even better. Someone has rightly said, travel and eat like locals.
Eritrean Coffee Ceremony
Eritrea is famous for coffee. They call it the Eritrean Coffee Ceremony. It is not an actual ceremony though but it is their way of preparing and serving coffee in front of you. It is a MUST have experience. Roasted coffee beans are presented to you for smelling before being ground with ginger. Coffee and water are mixed in a jebena (clay pot) and heated with coals before being poured into a cup.
Last but not the least…Italian cuisine
Eritrea was an Italian colony for a long period so there are tons of Italian restaurants in Asmara and other cities. Their pizzas and pastas are awesome. It is an option for those who cannot take the spicy local food. There are plenty of bars, cafes and pastry shops in Asmara. These are great places to immerse yourself in the local culture. Food in Eritrea is not expensive so you won’t require a silver spoon to eat good food.