History of Ethiopian Food

IMAGINE AN ETHIOPIA without Ethiopian cuisine. Was there ever such an unappetizing place? When did Ethiopians begin to prepare spicy wots and serve them atop spongy injera? And when did they begin to wash it all down with copious quantities of t’ej, their famous honey wine?

Drawing of Teff 
(c. 1780)

As I write, in much greater detail, in my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., nobody really knows how this cuisine emerged because very few written records of dietary habits exist from thousands of years ago. But scholars who have studied the ancient cultures of the land we now call Ethiopia and Eritrea have other evidence to document when the various elements of the cuisine began to emerge. 

The most prominent of these cultures, called Aksum, began its ascent in the first century B.C., was famous among its contemporaries by 300 A.D., and had faded into the mist of history by around 800 A.D. Almost two millennia later, we know that the food of Aksum was the nascent cuisine of Ethiopia.

In the fourth millennium B.C., agriculture emerged in the fertile highlands of what’s now western Eritrea and the Sudan. It then spread to the lowlands and eventually the plateau of Ethiopia, although it wasn’t called Ethiopia back then. By the first or second millennium B.C., these proto-Ethiopians ate sorghum, wheat, barley and possibly teff, along with many other grains, vegetables and pulses (lentils, peas, fava beans, chick peas and more). 

The language scholar Christopher Ehret suggests that these cultures may have had teff more than 5,000 years ago: He’s compared ancient Cushitic and Semitic languages of Ethiopia, and he speculates that teff “began to be cultivated at least several millennia before Christ, and possibly as early as the Near Eastern shift” – that is, about 5,000 B.C. Teff was a “local independent invention,” Ehret says, originating in the “northern and eastern fringes of the highlands” of Ethiopia in ancient times.

A variety of archaeological evidence confirms teff in Aksum early in the first millennium A.D., and probably in pre-Aksumite cultures of the first millennium B.C., when they had the proper cattle and plows to harvest it, although there’s no definitive physical evidence of teff that early. Teff, of course, is the grain required to make injera as we know it today.

The kings of Aksum drank t’ej and beer in the third century A.D, a knowledge that comes from inscriptions on Aksumite stones translated in 1962 by the Dutch scholar A.J. Drewes in his book Inscriptions de l’Ethiopie Antique. His revelatory work requires no reading between the lines: The ancient inscriptions that he deciphers tell us explicitly what some Aksumites ate.

Memorandum concerning the food of the royal court according to the law of the country,” begins one text, written in the middle of the third century A.D., less than a century before the height of Aksum’s power under King Ezana (321-360). The inscription goes on to describe the victuals: There’s virgin mutton, virgin beef, honey, wheat, beer, bread, a bucket of butter and – best of all – honey wine.

A passage from the Serata Gebr

Next up: injera. When do we know for sure that Aksumites baked it? Ethiopians today make their injera on a large round skillet called a mitad. In modern cities, these are often electric; in the country, the injerabakes on a clay mitad placed over an open flame. But regardless of the technology, the principle is the same: Making a piece of injera requires a big round skillet.

Enter Neville Chittick, whose 1972-74 excavations at Aksum yielded myriad treasures. In a close look at the pottery from the Chittick site, archaeologist Richard Wilding discovered some Aksumite mitads, placing them in the late fifth or sixth centuries, thus some time before 600 A.D. “The presence or absence of so basic a piece of specialized equipment,” Wilding writes, “might tell much of the diet and the principal cereal crop of Aksum.” That cereal crop is teff.

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