Unlikely Wine Pairings: Ethiopian Food

 


The first time I had Ethiopian food was back in high school twenty years ago, and I drove my little white pickup truck to Midtown which, at the time, was the site of Memphis’ only restaurant devoted to this particular cuisine. I had read up ahead of time and was ready for the unique experience. It was delicious and I enjoyed everything I had, but alone I was missing out on the way the food is supposed to be enjoyed. 

You start with injera, which is a sort of sourdough pancake made from a grain called teff. Injera is used like naan or a tortilla to pick up various items from the big communal plates. Only use your right hand to be polite, and to say thank you to your hostess, the syllables are “ah-ma-say-geh-nah-lo”. Sometimes the injera is placed underneath the various stews and side dishes, and it soaks up the great flavors of the food. I love picking off those pieces towards the end of the meal. 
 
When it comes to wine, things get a little complex. Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world (fighting with Armenia and Georgia for that title), and as such wine is an important sacrament, yet not a major component of the cuisine. Tej is the indigenous fermented honey beverage, and over the past 100 years Italian and French companies have established various operations to grow wine grapes and produce European-style wines. Here are five wine and food pairings for your next trip to your local Ethiopian place.
 
Doro Wat is the best known dish from Ethiopia and can be found in any any decent establishment. A rich stew of chicken and berbere spices often combined with a hardboiled egg, I like it the most when it is served with the meat still on the bone. Kind of fun to fight with your fellow diners for the egg, and I prefer it in a spicy incarnation. The sauce is strong enough that you can’t really put a weaker wine up against it, which is why I recommend the…
 
Santa Maria Valley, California
100% Chardonnay
$20, 14.2% abv.
 
This is a buttery and oaky California Chardonnay with firm notes of popcorn and caramel. While this style may be too much for your afternoon club sandwich or pasta salad, doro wat is exactly the kind of dish for a more powerful, full-bodied Chardonnay like this. Full fruit flavors of peach and apricot with medium acidity and a long finish, and it will perform well with this dish even if you go for the full spice like I do. 
 
Kitfo is a delicacy of the Gurage people of Southwest Ethiopia. The easiest way to describe it is the East African answer to steak tartare, though no raw eggs are involved. In the US it is often made from a small steak that is seared quickly and then chopped up in a food processor, served either “white” with cheese curds (ayibe) or “green” with collard greens (gomen). This is a dish served on special occasions, and it is extremely filling. I decided to pair it with the only African wine on this list. South Africa and Ethiopia have had close political and economic relationships since the end of the apartheid era, and I picked one of the first black-owned wineries from South Africa. 
 
Western Cape, South Africa
100% Chenin Blanc
$10, 13.5% abv. 
 
I’m a big fan of finding opportunities to pair white wines with red meat. Creamy and lemony, smooth and enjoyable with a short finish. This inexpensive wine is pretty easy to find in the US, and should go well with lots of poultry dishes. Chenin Blanc has a long and popular history in South Africa, where it's also known as Steen. This mild white wine will not overwhelm the delicate flavors of raw beef and spices. 
 
Spaghetti. Wait, what? Why’s that on the menu? It’s not just there for the kids that are scared of Ethiopian food. Italy briefly occupied Ethiopia in the years before WWII but had a big impact on the country. One of the positives was the introduction of spaghetti and marinara sauce, which became popular in the capital of Addis Ababa. Often it is made with a slightly different set of spices and you will get to eat it with a fork rather than trying to pick it up with injera bread. If you’re playing it safe with this selection, then you’re going to want a standard Super Tuscan wine to go along with it…
 
Tuscany, Italy
60% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon
$10, 12.5% abv.
 
While chilled this drinks like a Merlot, but once it comes up to temperature the Sangiovese really shines through. There's not a lot on the nose, but a slurping sip reveals some black cherry flavors and some medium tannins. It's hard to describe, but it smells like an Italian red and tastes like an Italian red, but doesn't have the heavy tannic bite and strong aftertaste of similar young Italian reds. 
 
Yebeg Alicha will arrive at your table in small portions. It is cubed lamb chops cooked with cardamom, ginger, and seeded peppers. Depending on your cook and your preferences, it may be hot or mild, but regardless you’re in for a treat. Unlike the stews, this is something that is simply and quickly cooked to maximize the flavor of the tender meat. When I order it here, it usually comes with jalapeño peppers. And of course it includes clarified butter and berbere spice, just like all of these dishes, including the spaghetti. Lamb really needs a nice grape originally from the south of France. 
 
Paso Robles, California
100% Syrah
$20, 15% abv.
 
Plum and spice notes dominate with medium tannins, this bottle has a firm body and a long finish. This wine has an interesting marketing line--though it is pure Syrah, they choose to market it as "red wine" in order to attract the market looking for just a red for the evening. I love how the spice plays along with the earthy and herbal flavors of lamb. You really can’t go wrong with lamb and Syrah/Shiraz.
 
Awaze Tibs is one of my favorite Ethiopian dishes, and like many of the others I’ve listed, is something that’s meant for special occasions back in the home country. Most of the time when you’re eating at an Ethiopian restaurant, you’re getting to have Christmas and Thanksgiving and your birthday all at once rather than what people really eat on a day to day basis. For awaze tibs, sirloin is covered in a spice rub and cooked in a skillet while seasoned lentils and other side dishes cook slowly in the background. 
 
Rioja, Spain
$20, 13.5% abv.
85% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo, 5% Graciano, 5% Garnacha Tinta
 
Light chocolate and leather profile, smooth body with mild tannins. Delightful balance and an elegant finish. Rioja remains an outstanding bargain across many producers and you'll see what wonders a mere five years of aging is able to accomplish with these grapes. Sit back and relish the long finish of the wine while you digest a cuisine that is thousands of years old.

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Comments

  • This article is wholly distasteful and misleading.

    Mar 06, 2015 at 11:31 AM


  • Seriously, this just makes me sick. You know they DO grow grapes in Ethiopia. Pairing Euro wines with these recipes is in extremely poor taste. Why not just serve fava and coriander with Madiera and get it over with?

    Mar 06, 2015 at 11:36 AM


  • Snooth User: Ben Carter
    1265097 20

    Ben: Thanks for the feedback! If I could find any Ethiopian wines within 100 miles I'd be ecstatic to write about them, but the focus here is for the American audience with access to an Ethiopian restaurant and a wine shop with bottles they can purchase. What are your favorite indigenous pairings?

    Mar 06, 2015 at 11:54 AM


  • Snooth User: bill2810
    94571 22

    I guess what I find disappointing is not that there are no Ethiopian wines recommended but that after the first pairing, this degrades into a simple list of "wines I like." I guess that's cool but it smacks of advertising (i.e., affiliate revenue) more than pairing. Could be wrong though.

    Oh, if you really want to have alcohol with Ethiopian food, choose beer. A good lager, or even a pale ale complements this food almost as well as the very sweet chai that is often drunk with it.

    Mar 06, 2015 at 2:06 PM


  • Snooth User: Ben Carter
    1265097 20

    In accordance with my own ethics and the policies of Snooth, there are no advertising/affiliate revenue decisions involved here. These are wines that I tried while eating Ethiopian food with friends. Wine is not a traditional pairing but is a lot of fun if you give it a try. Thanks, Bill!

    Mar 06, 2015 at 2:45 PM


  • Snooth User: Adam Field
    1826512 8

    No. If you go to an Ethiopian place, and you aren't getting tej, you are doing it wrong. Tej is amazing, and I haven't found *anywhere* that will sell it to me in bottles to go (or at least not *good* tej, found a couple commercial places that just don't do it justice), so I am literally compelled to get as much as possible anytime I'm at a restaurant that carries it. Why would you do anything else?

    Mar 06, 2015 at 7:59 PM


  • Snooth User: paniagua8
    1683115 19

    Thanks for the recommendations! I appreciate pairing recommendations that allow me to use the resources I have available to me in my tiny apartment, so it's great to consider drinking the red wine I do have with Ethiopian food, a personal favorite.

    Mar 06, 2015 at 9:31 PM


  • Snooth User: A Baeza
    1826717 28

    Did you know that Brotherhood, America's Oldest Winery in Washingtonville, New York has been producing an authentic Tej called "Sheba T'ej" for years now and distributes to several states around the country? Years ago an Ethiopian family came to my husband who was Winemaster at Brotherhood at the time, and asked him to produce a wine from their family recipe. Apparently it is the women who make the T'ej in Ethiopia. Not easy to get honey to ferment. After much back & forth "Sheba T'ej" was born. It became the mission of its new partner, Ernie McCaleb, an Afro-American who had lived in Africa, to introduce Sheba Tej, first to his beloved Harlem and then elsewhere. Ernie's left this world too soon along with his enthusiasm for the wine, and although my husband is no longer at the winery, I believe Brotherhood still produces Sheba T'ej. It's quite different from a honey mead wine. And of course since it's made from honey - no sulfites added.

    Mar 06, 2015 at 9:35 PM


  • I liked your writing/suggestions, I'm Ethiopian and often have beer than Wine (I like wine but was often disappointed with the wines I pick so I door beer instead. Anyway thank you I will work on this options

    daniel

    Mar 07, 2015 at 4:35 PM


  • Snooth User: oldpilot
    1826869 11

    We just got back from almost a month in Ethiopia. We did not find much in the way of good red wines, although they are drinkable. Tej, at least the tej we tried, must be an acquired taste, one which we will probably never acquire.

    Re the dishes, wat is basically the word for stew. You can get chicken, beef, lamb, and goat. The taste of all of them is quite similar. Why anyone would drink whites with wat is a mystery to me except, of course, if your bias is "finding opportunities to pair white wines with red meat."

    Tibs is also a family of foods, this time cut into small strips or pieces and fried. In-country the beef in beef tibs was typically fried to the consistency of shoe leather. I am sure the USA restaurants do a better job. Again, we found the flavors to be very similar regardless of the protein.

    We did not try raw kitfo, not wanting to tempt bacterial fate. We did try a little cooked kitfo but I really don't remember it as being distinctive.

    Actually, daniel-maya's habit of drinking beer with Ethiopian food is probably the best choice. The Germans have been everywhere, teaching everyone to make good lagers, and they have been to Ethiopia as well. There are several good brands.

    Mar 07, 2015 at 5:57 PM


  • Dear Ben,
    I think I need to elaborate why I end up with beer. Many if not all this wat mentioned are put on one big plate. So it means that you have one after the other bit in your mouth. Unless you have all this bottles open all at the same time it will just be difficult to paire.

    Hope you see where I'm going with this.

    I'm from Montreal Canada and we have beer of all kind

    Mar 07, 2015 at 7:47 PM


  • I just signed onto this site for the first time. This is the first article I have read. After honoring and recommending Ethiopian foods to pair with various wines I was very disappointed to read the first response by your reader. Such a nasty response by Ben. I just wanted to say that you did not merit that and your article has enticed me to seek out Ethiopian cuisine (which sadly, I have not yet experienced). His response was unmerited and in very poor taste. I must say that your response in the face of such an attack was that of a class act. Thank you for your article and your graciousness.

    Mar 14, 2015 at 11:34 AM


  • Snooth User: Ben Carter
    1265097 20

    Thanks to everyone for all of the great comments, even if you disagree with me. And if you have four or five different dishes on the table with a big group of friends, then open up four or five bottles of wine at the same time and let everyone try different combinations. I've done this on several occasions with Ethiopian food and people who have varying levels of experience with the cuisine. It's a lot of fun.

    Mar 14, 2015 at 11:45 AM


  • Snooth User: batonlone
    1829029 29

    good

    Mar 20, 2015 at 2:46 AM


  • I think I need to elaborate why I end up with beer. Many if not all this wat mentioned are put on one big plate. So it means that you have one after the other bit in your mouth. Unless you have all this bottles open all at the same time it will just be difficult to paire.

    Mar 23, 2015 at 12:49 AM


  • Always wanted to taste the Ethiopian cuisine ( dated a girl from Eritrea and knowing the two countries history it cannot be that different ) and to try every cuisine with your favourite wines, it is probably the best game you can play - and of course whoever taste these dishes probably would pair them with different wines but hey it is a good guide line. Thanks!

    Mar 24, 2015 at 10:20 AM


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