The walled city of Harar is located in the East of Ethiopia. A primarily Muslim city, it is a UNESCO world heritage site known for its colorful and narrow streets, its hyenas and for being the fourth most important city in Islam (at least, that’s what their citizens believe). The famous explorer Richard Burton and the French poet Rimbaud both called it home, along with former King Haile Selassie.
Due to its unique position as a crossroads of trade in the 10th- 16th enturies, the food of Harar is a great mix between the Arab traders and the Ethiopian highlanders. It is probably the best city in Ethiopia for it’s street food. I wanted to explore further! We were staying in one of the many guesthouses inside the walled city where you can sleep inside a typical Harari house.
The first night we arrived, we headed straight to the hyena feeding. Every day, as local culture dictates, the “hyena man” feeds hyenas in order to keep them off the streets of Harar. Visitors can come and feed these creatures. The hyena came to sit on top of my shoulders to take a piece of meat and almost knocked me over it was so strong and heavy. That said, they are very shy and take the meat and run.
After some adrenaline, we were hungry! Very close to the centre of town, we found some men cooking fetira on giant oil drums. Fetira is my favourite street food in Ethiopia (and I could easily eat it at least once a day). It is a thin, fluffy bread that is layered with egg omelette. The chef pulls a bread until it is very thin and lays it on the vat to cook, meanwhile, he scrambles up some egg with karia (green chili), onions and tomatoes and pours it over the dough. He then folds up the dough and egg layers until they are cooked through and to the right degree of crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Amazing. And very filling. One of them chopped up was more than enough for two people. Did I mention it was super cheap? Like maybe two dollars.
The next day, we walked around the market for a little bit. I really enjoyed talking with all of the vendors and checking out the various spices, fruits and vegetables. To be honest, the vendors have really changed their attitude towards being photographed. Three years ago, people were super friendly and were proud to have their pictures taken. These days though, even with friendly amharic and conversation, they refuse to do so without asking for money. People are also quite a bit more hostile to tourists than I remember. I learned soon afterwards (through my own experience) that tourists were incredibly rude of people in Harar, taking photographs without permission and getting in their faces. As Ethiopia opens up to more and more tourists, I’m afraid we will see this more often.
Camel Meat Market
Around lunch, we headed down to the main square where you can see some of the camel meat butchers and even feed some of the falcons hanging around.We got invited to try some raw camel meat by the relatives of our guide. We were a little nervous honestly. I was game to try though and I’m so glad we did. It was quite different from kitfo, the raw meat dish that is eaten in other places in the country.
Right outside of the camel butcher, one of the attendants was chopping the raw camel meat to a paste and put it into a plastic bag. He then added some fresh onions, chopped tomatoes, green chili, fresh coriander, coriander powder, red chili powder, tomato paste, garlic and lots of lime juice. He then closed the bag and mixed it all up. You eat it with injera, the slightly sour pancake that is the staple of Ethiopian food. I’m so glad we tried it! The meat was slightly sweet but also nice and spicy- almost like a kebab but you know… raw.
We walked around a little bit longer and then went inside a tiny (and rather dirty) little restaurant close to our guesthouse. I really wanted to try a meat dish that is a typical harari specialty called hulbat marakh.
Hulbhat marakh (above left) is a spicy stew made in a rich tomato sauce, with potatoes and lots of coriander. It tasted very much like an indian curry but heavier on the coriander powder. We ate it with pieces of injera to soak up the delicious sauce. We also got some pasta with meat (below right) and I loved the ‘siga’ (mean meat in amharic)- the sauce was made very sweet with tomato paste and red chili powder- sweet and spicy. We struggled to eat the spaghetti with our hands. It was quite hard to try and gather all of the noodles and put them into my mouth without a fork. A guy came over and gave me a ‘gursha’- an ethiopian tradition where you feed a guest (with your hand). He was eating tibbs, pieces of meat cut up and slightly grilled with butter and some light spices and fed me that covered with a piece of injera. However, I was eating, I realized that he had actually stuffed the inside with lots and lots of awaze- a very spicy and tangy sauce made from berbere. I quickly aksed for a sprite to cool my mouth down!
After lunch, we walked around town just a little bit more and poked around some of the souvenir shops. We made a few snack stops, notably- a woman was selling some amazing peanut fudge (YUM!) and some dough dumplings.
Next, we went to the famous coffee roastery in Harar to check out how they roast the coffee that Harar is so famous for. You can even get it roasted to your desires and then packaged on site!
I wanted to walk around and see the different city gates. Harar was six of them that used to allow access to the city. As it was late afternoon, this allowed us to digest and to see lots of local neighbourhood kits coming home from school. We tried our hand at chewing on some delicious sugar cane (and ended up giving most of it away— my teeth are apparently too soft). Finally, as dusk was coming up, we went into a small restaurant for some dinner.
Since I loved the fetira so much the previous night, our guide took us to another local fetira joint. This time, we had fetira fir fir, the same super thin bread cooked but instead of layering with egg, he scrambled the thin dough and the egg with tuna, onions, tomatoes and spices. It made for a delicious mix! The usage of canned tuna was particularly interested and made it an interesting texture. We ate this with bread and lots of mitmita (powdered berbere powder mix). It was also served with camel yogurt with lots of sugar!
While we didn’t come to Harar looking for a food tour, the delicious food options were certainly top notch. Apparently the city comes to life with dishes that aren’t served at any other time than during the Muslim festival of Eid after Ramadan. Definitely need to put that one on my calendar to come back and experience more of this city’s culinary delights.
How to Get Here: Ethiopian Airlines flies to Dire Dawa, a city an hour away from Harar, daily. From Dire Dawa, you can arrange a car or taxi to come pick you up at the airport. OR you can take an easy public transport bus ride.
Where to Stay: Even though the bathrooms are shared, staying inside the walled city inside one of the cultural houses is worthwhile if only to say that you’ve done it. Besides, the breakfast of fetira and honey is super great.
7 thoughts on “An Unexpected Food Tour of Harar”
I miss Ethiopian food so much! I’d love to visit during the Eid to try the special dishes… I’m going to have a look at my calendar.
All that food looks amazing! The only Ethiopian food I’ve ever had is at restaurants near San Francisco (there are a lot of Ethiopian immigrants there). I wonder how it would measure up to this!
It’s a shame tourists are so rude sometimes. I hate it when people treat their destinations like museums. These are real people, not Disney employees there for your amusement.
I’m sure the Ethiopian food in San Francisco is close. However, I don’t think most ethiopian restaurants abroad sell any specialties from Harar (they should!). Agreed about tourists. I wonder how we can change this attitude without making locals angry…
Totally agree. The specialties of Harar are delicious but they’re pretty much impossible to find anywhere else in the country. But even in Harar, I never came across fetira 😦 Looks delicious!
Ah! You’re going to have to go back. I’m pretty sure I could eat fetira three times a day for a long time before I get sick. 🙂
It’s really sad to know that the local vendors have changed their attitude toward tourists and photography. But in many places I’ve been to, it is disrespectful tourists who caused greater impact to the local way of life. By the way, great photos! I’m especially intrigued by fetira as it looks quite similar to a dish called martabak here in Indonesia. It was introduced by Arab merchants centuries ago. I wonder if it’s also the case with fetira.
Thanks for your comment Bama! Yes, absolutely it is disrespectful tourists who cause this change. I saw it with my own eyes and even had to stop a tourist from taking photos of a person who was really against it. They just acted as if they didn’t understand and went on their way. It made me really upset and I totally understand when locals object to being disrespected. I just looked up martabak… it looks similar but Fetira is closer to an indian stuffed “paratha” than anything else I know. You should come and see 🙂