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
$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…
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
$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.
$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.