Dining through the capital like a local with Go Addis Tours.
I never could turn down a bargain meal, so on my most-recent trip to Addis Ababa, I decide to sign up for an affordable citywide food tour that promises a local experience. Never mind the fact that I have my choice of home-cooked food with extended family scattered throughout the capital; I understand the tour’s promise to mean I’ll get to sample exactly the kinds of places that said family would deem too dodgy or too local for my delicate diaspora digestive tract. Plus, I figure it will take me back to when, as teens on school break, my loitering cousins and I used to make do in the city with a very limited budget.
The company behind the tour, Go Addis, emerged in 2013 through word of stomach from founders Eliza Richman and Xavier Curtis to their expat friends and now far beyond. It began as a side project shortly after Eliza moved from Washington, D.C., to work in wildlife conservation and temporarily live with Lemmy, her former nanny and the woman responsible for Eliza’s love of Ethiopian food. Six months later, Xavier followed, also to work in an NGO.
“In our spare time, we wandered the streets and went into restaurants that looked busy,” says Eliza. Soon, they were giving impromptu food tours and recommendations. “We realized that the food tour model would work perfectly in Ethiopia. The food is so good and well known in the world, but it’s intimidating.”
Two years after Go Addis launched, TripAdvisor ranked it Ethiopia’s #1 Tour Company. One of its grand successes is steering tourists and other patrons toward lesser-known spots frequented by locals, the names and locations of which — like the proportion of spices to make perfect berbere — must remain a company secret.
My own tour starts with wine — a necessary social lubricant to launch a day’s worth of eating by hand from a common plate with up to a dozen strangers, compressed into four hours. In a rustic tasting room, we surround a wooden barrel to sample both a chardonnay and two cabernet sauvignons of the Ethiopian Rift Valley brand.
“Our culture is tej, not wine,” explains Genet, one of the company’s three guides, referring to the honey-based fermented beverage. “[Wine is] a growing culture, but we still don’t know how to taste it or what food works with it. We put wine in the fridge, have it with Coke, Sprite. We do a lot of things that would be no-nos in France.” There being no declared wine connoisseurs among us, either, we are glad for her refreshing frankness, and for the by turns cool-fruity and tart-woody respites from the dusty congestion mere steps away.
After our tasting, we take our leftover wine to what I’ll call “the shiro house,” where we listen to Genet’s dos and don’ts of Ethiopian dining etiquette before the meal is served on one big tray: clean hands, no finger licking, no use of the left hand and, most crucial, no trespassing. (That is, reaching over to eat from someone else’s side.)
Though the food tour’s itinerary is always in flux due to restaurant relocations, closures, or the fasting season, this restaurant has been on the tour since the start because its shiro — Ethiopian comfort food, more so when heavily doused with the seasoned clarified butter known as kibe — is consistently perfect. The very reason Go Addis’ food tours start in the late afternoon is because at lunchtime, the shiro house is packed with lines out the door. Owner Abrehet personally mixes her spices, including the yellow split-pea powder for her shiro.
“Go Addis has become our family,” she says. “Eliza loves the shiro. I’ve packed it for her to take to Rwanda (where Go Kigali just launched), and to her family in America. We are happy to work with them because different kinds of people visit our place.”
Trays of injera descend into our midst and bowlfuls of Abrehet’s shiro are poured onto them with flourish. Vegetarian sides follow, and we dive into the joys of beyaynetu, where the creamy and gently spicy decadence of shiro runs like a melody through the riot of flavors from three kinds of lentils and two of potato.
Inevitably, the discussion among omnivores gathered around a vegan feast turns to our favorite meat dishes. American expat Chris Turnbull-Grimes, whose advice to potential food tourists is to “Come hungry and sober,” states his to be chikina tibs. Before that leap into buttery, spiced veal goodness, however, we stop at the cavernous “fish house.”
The server squeezes lime halves over a tray of half a dozen whole fried tilapias. Cool beers to wash it all down are a must, considering the dips: awaze, a berbere and water mix, and the green chili and garlic blend da’ta. As we tear our fish down to a pile of bones, I strike a pose with a chunk of my “catch” for Johannesburg-based food blogger Anna Koblanck. Genet dispatches a co-worker to pre-order our bottled water–based drinks at “the juice place.”
On the narrow patio of a supermarket, in a grove of hanging mesh baskets and stacks of wire crates teeming with fruits and vegetables, we help ourselves to rainbows in tall glasses. Identifying the fruits that the colors correspond to becomes a game for those of us who opt to use straws strategically rather than swirl the semisolid mass into whatever flavor results when mango, guava, papaya, avocado and pineapple get together.
Afterward, wafting incense and fresh strewn grass welcome us to the one-room “coffee house.” Sitting in a circle, we pluck by the rims tiny china cups filled with steaming black-as-night coffee. Genet talks about the background of Ethiopian coffee and the brewing process, using as props a plate of beans and a bunch of tena adam (rue). Unlike rue, a bitter evergreen shrub used for flavor and to soothe the stomach, she dismisses popcorn, a ubiquitous feature of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, as having no basis in tradition. I learn this just as I grab another warm, sweet fistful, wondering why the owner sprinkled it with sugar instead of salt.
We’re all fairly stuffed as we pile out after coffee, so at “the meat place” we order only one plate of chikina tibs. The veal strips arrive floating in a shallow pool of berbere-tinged kibe with chunks of onion and green pepper. Nibbling weakly, we interrogate an obliging Genet about Ethiopian cuisine. American Cynthia Ord, who produces free e-guidebooks, says, “It’s possible to eat in Ethiopia and love it but still not have a good understanding of what you’re eating, so it was cool to ask many questions and get them all answered.”
“We went to places that we wouldn’t necessarily find ourselves,” adds Anna,
inadvertently summing up Go Addis’ mandate to give tourists an exclusive dining experience, far off the eaten path.
Go Addis’ tours can be booked online through goaddistours.com, unless otherwise indicated on the website. In addition to the food tour, Go Addis also conducts full- and half-day tours of the capital’s museums, churches and markets, as well as shorter tours focusing on a selection of these. Group sizes range between 2 and 12, and prices span from US$60 to $135 per person. Most tours include transportation by private minibus for the day.
Rebecca Fisseha lives and writes in Toronto. A notorious trespasser, she’ll be the first to advise you against sharing a tray with her, unless you weren’t planning to eat what’s in front of you anyway.