Gluten-Free Ethiopian Food
Ethiopian food is GF-friendly because it features spiced meat and/or vegetable stews and sauces that traditionally don’t contain gluten. There are a variety of vegan and vegetarian options that are clearly labeled on the menu, so it may also be a good option for people on a casein-free diet. As always, check each restaurant’s familiarity with gluten-free best practices and ask about unlisted ingredients.
Ethiopian food is not rice-based (unlike Thai, Indian, and Vietnamese food), so it’s a great option if you don’t like/are sick of/can’t eat rice. The featured grain is a naturally gluten-free ingredient called teff, which is cooked into a spongey, sourdough flatbread/tortilla hybrid called injera.
PLEASE NOTE: traditional injera (made in Ethiopia) is almost always gluten-free. However, due to differences in water content and altitude, many Ethiopian restaurants include wheat flour in their injera to help it better mimic the real thing.
Almost every dish comes on a bed of injera or with rolled injera to dip, so your biggest risk of gluten contamination at an Ethiopian restaurant is injera. It is incredibly important that you call ahead to confirm they offer gluten-free injera. Injera takes several days to make because it is fermented, so I would highly recommend calling the Ethiopian restaurant at least a few days in advance to order your gluten-free injera.
Gluten-free injera is a reddish-brown color (“dark” injera). If the injera is more grayish-white, it most likely has wheat flour in it. Check out the difference in these pictures:
Ethiopian food is traditionally considered a communal eating experience and it is intended to be eaten with your hands, so it can be a great option for adventurous kids.
However, it may be worth having your whole dining party eat gluten-free injera to minimize risk of gluten contamination at the table.
There are a variety of entrees and appetizers to choose from, but beware of salads and desserts because they are often not traditional Ethiopian dishes (for instance, dishes like tiramisu and cheesecake are popular dessert items due to influence of Italian colonists) and therefore your most likely sources of gluten in the restaurant.
You are more likely to be able to eat fried foods at Ethiopian restaurants because they tend to fry very few menu items. The restaurant we visited only used their fryer for falafel and assured me the falafel hummus was a gluten-free appetizer. Delicious!
Something I am curious to try is the traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. I saw it on the menu but didn’t get a chance to partake. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia,
“The coffee ceremony is the traditional serving of coffee, usually after a big meal. It often involves the use of a jebena (ጀበና), a clay coffee pot in which the coffee is boiled. The preparer roasts the coffee beans right in front of guests, then walks around wafting the smoke throughout the room so participants may sample the scent of coffee. Then the preparer grinds the coffee beans in a traditional tool called a mokecha. The coffee is put into the jebena, boiled with water, and then served with small cups called si’ni. Coffee is usually served with sugar, but is also served with salt in many parts of Ethiopia. In some parts of the country, niter kibbeh is added instead of sugar or salt.”
Have any of you experienced this ceremony? Was it as awesome as it sounds?!
Language barriers continue to be a concern for Ethiopian restaurants, so I highly recommend looking for a restaurant that is very comfortable with gluten-free diners. I just visited my first Ethiopian restaurant and while they were very aware of the term “gluten-free,” I noted they considered it equivalent to “wheat-free.” There is a barley-based dish called kolo that does contain gluten, so make sure to check all ingredients in a dish before ordering. Once you get used to common ingredients and the right questions to ask, it may be easier to communicate if there is a language barrier.
Gluten-free Ethiopian food options:*
Remember: almost all dishes served on bed of injera or with rolled up injera for dipping
- Fit-fit / Fir-fir (shredded injera marinated with stir-fried spices or wat) – common breakfast dish, often contains clarified butter
- Wat (Ethiopian curry) – can be made vegan, ask for kai wat if you like it spicy
- Tibs (sautéed meat and/or vegetables) – usually made with meat, but vegan options may be available
- Kitfo (raw/slightly cooked meat) – order leb leb if you want it slightly cooked
If you like variety in your meal or just want to try out different dishes, I highly recommend ordering a vegan or meat/vegetable combo platter. You get to try lots of options at once (see photos above).
- Kolo – barley (gluten ingredient)
- Sambusa – pastry filled with meat and/or veggies (gluten ingredient)
- Beverages: tmet – like egg-nog (gluten ingredient), tella – beer/holiday drink (gluten ingredient)
- Anything fried in a non-dedicated fryer
- Salads, desserts, and non-injera breads
Other common allergens:
- Sesame seeds: sesame oil commonly used for cooking
- Dairy: common ingredients include clarified butter and ayibe (cottage cheese)
- Eggs: not always listed as an ingredient
- Spices: common spice mixture used is called Berbere (ingredients and ratios vary but commonly includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek)
- Eat only at restaurants that serve gluten-free injera
- Always call ahead to order your gluten-free injera
- Select restaurants where everything is made from scratch and communication is relatively easy
- Communicate with your server about that restaurant’s preparation style and your tastes (a great way to try some new dishes!)
*Refers to commonly-used ingredients only. Gluten contamination is ALWAYS a risk when dining out. Ask about food preparation and anything not made from scratch. Communicate your concerns with your server and consider using a dining card.