Canadian Arnica Rowan co-founded a charity in Ethiopia and has visited this beautiful country many times over the last decade. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.
When international travellers think of Ethiopia, images of dry savannah and mud huts often come to mind. Although the countryside is dotted by quiet, rural farms, the bustling capital Addis Ababa is actually a hub of development and industry. Due to the fastest-growing economy in Africa, a rising middle class, and loads of foreign workers and investors, Addis Ababa is a richly-textured city with a strong food culture.
Ethiopia was never colonised, so the distinctive traditional spicy stews and sour breads remain the staple of daily eating. Although international food has also been available throughout the city for decades, wine is a newer phenomenon. When I started visiting Ethiopia a decade ago, tej (pronounced tay-ch), an off-dry wine made from honey, was available on every street in seedy tejbet bars. To find wine made from grapes we would have to buy bottles of cheap Italian red as off-sales from an Italian restaurant. Thankfully, today inexpensive Italian, Spanish, French and South African wines can be found in restaurants and grocery stores throughout the capital city.
Vines planted in the breathtaking lakes region of the Rift Valley now produce dry domestic wines for expats, and spice-complementing sweet wines for the Ethiopian palate. The wines are based on French and Greek varieties, and the domestic grape Domoko. With two growing and two harvest seasons a year, Ethiopia grape growing redefines the viticultural season. There is no such thing as dormancy for Ethiopian vines. The vines are irrigated, as the bi-annual rainy seasons are intense and followed by periods of drought. Labour is very inexpensive in Ethiopia due to high unemployment, so even large-scale production is picked by hand. The cost of a domestic bottle of wine is approximately 130–210 birr ($4.50–$7.30 or £3.70–£6).
When navigating my recommendations, realise that Addis Ababa is a rabbit warren of highways and alleys, with official names that no one actually knows. Linked online maps are quasi-reliable, as road closures due to construction are the norm and never taken into account. If you are walking, taking a taxi or attempting to drive, ask for instructions by the neighbourhood I mention. Yelling enquiries out of the window of your car is an acceptable practice. Once you get in the general vicinity, do as the locals do, and ask for the business by name.
One of my favourite restaurants in Addis Ababa is the upscale Abucci, in an alley in the Chichinya district. The chef/owner trained under Gordon Ramsay in London and seems to have picked up his habit of yelling at the cooking staff. Other than the occasional startling shouts from the kitchen, the atmosphere is polished and peaceful, the food is impeccably plated and the wine list is ever-changing. Pair a Sangiovese with the beef carpaccio – it’s the best I’ve tasted on five continents.
A few years ago, French bistro La Mandoline moved to a new location in the north of Addis Ababa in the Hayahulet neighourhood. La Mandoline never disappoints, serving simple traditional French food with rich East African ingredients. Likely due to the passion of the French owners, La Mandoline showcases the broadest selection of European wine options in the city. This is the only restaurant in Ethiopia I have ever been to that has offered me suggestions on wine pairings.
Katenga Restaurant II
Katenga is synonymous with extremely high-quality traditional food in Addis Ababa. The original Kategna, near the airport on an industrial dirt road, is a lunchtime institution dominated by successful business folks. More recently, Ketenga opened an upscale restaurant near Medhane Alem with the same food, but sexy leather furniture and a much younger clientele. Order the delectable bozena shiro, a spicy chickpea stew with dried beef. Tannins set the traditional food on fire; instead, try any berbere chilli-based dishes with local, low-tannin, off-dry red wine.
Makush Restaurant and Gallery
Makush is a long-term fixture of the Addis Ababa food scene on Bole Road. On the third floor of the building, this relaxed Italian restaurant is accessed through the well-respected art gallery. Don’t miss the tagliatelle bolognese, a delicious meaty pasta with typical Ethiopian hints of ginger in the sauce. The restaurant carries local as well as budget Italian and South African wine, at very reasonable prices. If you fancy one of the well-curated paintings from Makush’s gallery, just ask them to take the canvas off the frame and roll it up to take home.
Culturally, the only women who frequent bars are working girls. Ethiopians have a high tolerance for foreign woman stumbling into drinking establishments, but don’t expect any respectable Ethiopian lady to go with you to a tejbet, a bar serving honey wine. The only exception is the restaurant-looking establishment on Haile Gebre Selassie Street. Topia ferments its own tej of high quality, and women can relax in this temple of traditional drink. Ask the server to show you how to properly wrap your index finger around the glass serving bottle.
A foreigner’s visit to Ethiopia wouldn’t be complete without a late night at a cultural restaurant. The main attraction at Yod Abyssinia in the Mekanisa district is the fantastic, high octane traditional dance show that happens every night, showcasing the different tribal cultures. While you are cheering on the dancers, enjoy traditional platters of food with glasses of domestic wine and restaurant-fermented tej. The food and drink prices are inflated, but the entertainment is free. Just remember to tip the dancers by slipping bills into their belts. It sounds creepy, but that’s how it’s done. (NB the main branch is in Bole Medhane Alem, very near the airport.)
African Jazz Village at the Ghion Hotel
If you like the vibe of world-renowned Ethiopian-Canadian pop star The Weeknd, be sure to visit African Jazz Village and see where the sound started. The ancient Ghion Hotel has beautiful grounds, and is the home of the unique Ethiopian jazz scene. Sip glasses of local wine and cocktails, and groove the night away.
There are liquor stores in Addis Ababa, but they mainly focus on hard alcohol, which has higher margins and brand recognition for wealthy Ethiopians. To pick up a bottle of wine for home, simply visit any of the large grocery stores. Groceries have the broadest selection but keep your expectations in check. Wine is still a new product in Ethiopia, and there are usually only a few choices. Another insider tip: it’s highly unlikely the wine has been cooled on any part of its journey to the Ethiopian grocery shelf. Choose screw caps and buy young wine.
Rift Valley Wine
Most of Ethiopia’s vineyards are found in the dry, sandy loam soils of the lakes region southeast of Addis Ababa. There are some grapes grown near Guder an hour or so directly west of the city, but these aren’t accessible to the public. An overnight trip southeast to the lakes region is highly recommended.
Stop at Ziway Tourist Hotel Restaurant and order the vegetarian platter with fresh fried fish from Lake Ziway. Pair it with the local Acacia Medium Sweet White to complement the abundant chilies in the vegetarian stews.
The only real tourist-oriented winery in Ethiopia is also located in Ziway. The largest wine producer in Europe, Castel, shows off their Acacia and Rift Valley brands in a stunning building on Ziway’s main street.
To finish off your excursion, stay at one of the eco resorts at nearby Lake Langano for a swim in the milky-tea-brown waters, hippo and bird watching. Imported wine selections.