Food is very important in Ethiopian. Not just for sustenance, but as a social activity. A meal is never something you have at your desk while finishing a presentation, or while staring dead eye into a tv. It’s an experience you share with loved ones, a moment of relaxation in which you have to be present.
Of course such a meaningful moment has its own set of rules you are expected to follow whether you’re eating a restaurant or in a typical Ethiopian household. But fret not, the rules are pretty easy to follow. Read on to avoid any faux paux:
Watch Your Hands
Yes, Ethiopian food is always eaten with your hands. But it’s not as easy as just reaching into a plate like you would with a bag of Doritos. There’s more to it. First, you have to thoroughly clean your hands, and a typical Ethiopian place (whether it’s an informal joint or a fancy restaurant) will always have a place for you to do so. There will either be a designated place, or a waiter will come by your table and offer a basin. If the latter occurs, you’re supposed to hold out your hands and let the waiter pour water on you.
Second, you are supposed to mostly use your right hand. Christian customs have greatly influence the Ehtiopians, so in both cultures the left hand is considered unholy and dirty and is not to be used. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to tie your hand to your back, you can still use it, just lead with your right and don’t use the left unless you absolutely have to. If you’re in too much trouble, just use a piece of Injera (more on that in a minute).
Third, let’s talk greetings. What if you get to dinner a bit late and people are already eating? What if you’re the one eating and someone comes over to greet you? Handshakes are out of the question. The person eating will typically hold their wrists out for the other person to hold (but not shake). If neither of them have free hands, they can just touch wrists.
A typical Ethiopian dinner comes from a big plate that everyone at the table is sharing. But… you’re not supposed to try everything in it. Just the part of the plate that’s directly in front of you. Reaching to the other side is considered impolite. And while we’re on the subject of reaching for food, let’s get back to the Injera. Ethiopians don’t use utensils, but Injera is supposed to work as a sort of edible spoon. You’re expected to use a piece of Injera to grab the food and eat it.
Another thing you have to keep in mind is seniority. Elders go first. You’re supposed to wait till they start eating before following suit. And if someone wants to feed you directly to your mouth, accept it. It’s a sign of friendship and respect.
Lastly, there’s the famous Ethiopian coffee. Typically after lunch, you’ll be offered their marvelous coffee. It will be served in a small cup after being roasted right in front of you. In a traditional household, you’ll be offered three cups of coffee. Don’t miss the chance to taste it!