Tekebash and Saba: Saba Alemayoh on Ethiopian food and identity

Saba Alemayoh's new cookbook combines food with identity. Through recipes and memories, she explores the cuisine and traditions of her family's home region - Tigray in Northern Ethiopia.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

What’s the Tigray region like?

Tigray is very remote with lots of mountains; in some places, there aren’t even any roads. It’s part of a developing nation, so there’s an element of poverty — more than 60% of people live in rural areas where life is very traditional. Yes, there are big modern cities scattered around, but even where there are options for modernity, people still [don’t choose that modernity] because the culture is something we cherish.

What are the classic flavours you’ll find there?

Tigarus [people from Tigray] are well known for cooking food with spices. We have a distinct spice mix called berbere, which can be made into a paste called dilik. Berbere is like a chilli powder but with over 15 ingredients, including garlic, cumin, onions, ginger, salt and pepper. Each family has their own recipe and there’s pride around who makes the best one. There’s also something called tesmi, which is a really flavourful butter for cooking meat in. To make it, you melt butter with a lot of spices, then reduce it and strain it to get a spiced ghee. And then we have injera, our fermented flatbread, which is served with everything. It’s like a pancake, but with a sourdough taste.

Does the cuisine differ from the rest of Ethiopia?

In Tigray, about 98% of people are Orthodox Christians and this affects everything. We observe Lent for 200 days of the year, when only vegan food is eaten, and we don’t eat pork. Because we’re landlocked, we don’t eat seafood. But the food in Tigray isn’t necessarily that different from the rest of Ethiopia — there are other regions with similar flavours.

Has the way Tigarus eat changed with modernity?

Our recipes might look inconvenient and like a lot of work, but the food isn’t just food, it’s a part of the culture and there’s a lot of pride around domesticity. Like the weeks of food preparation for a wedding — it’s an event in itself, and part of the wedding process. For the people taking part, it’s their way of saying: “I really like you; I’m so happy for you that I’m willing to work for you.” What’s changed in cities and in the West is that we’re not eating communally as much; in the rural areas [of Tigray], everyone sits around a platter for lunch and eats together before going back to work. Also, some of the foods eaten for special occasions are now eaten more frequently, and there’s more meat consumption — but that’s more to do with wealth.

Are there any special etiquettes around food?

There’s a hierarchy when it comes to communal eating. Older people get served first, and then the men. It’s different when we’re in the West, but in Tigray, kids don’t usually eat at the same table as adults. As part of communal eating, you’re supposed to wash your hands just before you eat and only eat with one hand. You’re not supposed to lick your fingers, put your fingers in your mouth or reach across the table. Some of it’s hygiene, but some of it would be considered the equivalent of putting your elbows on the table at a fine-dining restaurant.

Why do you feel it’s important to highlight the Tigrayan identity?

Within Ethiopia, people usually identify with their ethnicity first and their nation second. So, I’d identify as Tigrayan first and then Ethiopian. But when I go to some countries, my identity gets reduced down to ‘African’; people can’t or don’t want to process the complexities of identity. When the war in Tigray started in November 2020, another generation became displaced, and were losing their identities, so it became really important for me as a child of refugees to talk about Tigray as its own place, with its own history, customs and traditions. And doing this through food, whether that’s the wedding or birthing rituals we have, feels like the most palatable way for me to engage with people and share our culture.

Derek Kulwa

Serves: 2    
Takes: 1 hr 


sunflower oil, for cooking
400g beef short ribs or back ribs (ideally with some fat left on), cut into 2-3cm chunks
1 red onion, sliced
2 red peppers, chopped into small chunks
2 green chillies, chopped
paprika, to taste
5 rosemary sprigs
injera, to serve

For the tesmi

2 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 tsp cardamom seeds
700g unsalted butter½ red onion, coarsely chopped
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground turmeric

For the awaze

1 garlic bulb, peeled
175g hot mustard seeds
500g hot chilli powder


1. For the tesmi, place a dry frying pan on a medium heat and toast the fenugreek seeds until light brown. Transfer to a blender with the cardamom seeds and blitz until coarsely ground.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a very low heat. Add the onion, garlic and turmeric, and cook, stirring, for 15-20 mins until brown. Remove from the heat and leave to cool, but not so long that it solidifies. Strain the liquid into a dry container, discarding the solids. Set aside.

3. Next make the awaze. Put all the ingredients into a food processor with 2 tbsp salt and blend. The mixture should be like tomato sauce, but granulated. Add water if the mix is too dry. Set aside.

4. Add a glug of sunflower oil to a saucepan. Fry the beef over a medium heat, turning until brown all over. Continue cooking for 8-10 mins, until all the juices have evaporated. Remove from the heat.

5. Add some oil to a frying pan and set over a medium heat. Sauté the onion, pepper and green chillies for 1 min. Add 2 tbsp of the tesmi (the rest will keep in the fridge for months), the browned meat and paprika to taste. Cook for 4-5 mins, tossing until it’s all incorporated. Add the rosemary for the final min of cooking, then remove at the end. 

6. Serve with injera and a side of awaze.


You’ll need to start this recipe two days ahead of when you need the injera, though for most of that time, you’re just letting the fermentation happen. You’ll need woven mats for the injera to cool on — they’re usually available in Asian and African stores. If you find teff hard to work with, try replacing half of it with sorghum or wheat flour.

Makes: 12
Takes: 2hr 25 mins


1 kg teff flour
1 tsp dried instant-action yeast


1. Mix the teff flour and yeast in a large bowl, then gradually add up to 1.5L lukewarm water, mixing with your hands and taking breaks to knead the dough. (You could also do this in a mixer.) You might not need all the water, so take care not to add too much — it should be smooth and slightly sticky like playdough, but not wet. Leave the mixture in an airtight container overnight in a warm place. 

2. The next day, add enough room-temperature water to thin out the mixture to an American pancake batter consistency. Replace the lid and let it sit overnight again. 

3. When you open it the next day, it may smell sour and have a dark layer that looks like mould. This is fine, it’s just aerobic yeast. Pour off the top layer of liquid, and you’ll be left with a thick dough.

4. Bring 250ml water to the boil in a small saucepan. Scoop up 125ml of the dough and whisk it really well into the boiling water until it’s the consistency of a thick shake. 

5. Add this to the rest of the dough and mix well. The thickness should be somewhere between an American pancake batter and crepe batter. Add more lukewarm water if needed. Cover and let it sit for a final 2 hrs.

6. Place a lidded non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and use a ladle to pour the mixture all around the pan. You want to make it thicker than a crepe but not as thick as an American pancake. Leave it uncovered until half of the injera has tiny holes, then cover the pan with the lid for 5-10 secs to steam-cook the top.

7. Gently remove the injera using a butter knife and transfer to a woven mat. Repeat for the remaining 11 injera. Leave to cool, making sure you don’t stack them on top of each other as they’ll stick together.

8. Serve the injera topped with stew or rolled up on the side of the plate.


Serves: 4
Takes: 25 mins


sunflower, vegetable or canola oil, for frying 
2 onions, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp ground turmeric
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1cm rounds
1kg potatoes, peeled and diced into 1cm cubes
½ head of green cabbage, shredded
2 green chillies


1. Add a small splash of oil to a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Sauté the onion for 3-4 mins until just starting to brown, then add the garlic and sauté for 1 min.

2. Stir in the turmeric, then add a splash of water so you get a paste. Add the carrots and cook for 5-10 mins until al dente. Tip in the potatoes and cook for another 5-10 mins, stirring to ensure even cooking.

3. Add the shredded cabbage, whole green chillies and 1 tsp salt. Cook for 2-3 mins until the cabbage starts to wilt. Remove from the heat as soon as it’s done — you don’t want to overcook the potatoes or they’ll turn to mash. Serve warm.

Published in Issue 19 (spring 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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