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The Cuisine of Djibouti Takes in the Foods of Many Cultures

posted on: Mar 17, 2021

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Djibouti’s, formally French Somaliland, cuisine has through the centuries taken in bits and pieces of many cultures that came by way of merchants and foreign invasions that at different times held the land in their grip.  Today the culinary art of the country incorporates various elements brought in by these peoples as well as those borrowed from neighbouring countries. These entered Djiboutian cooking and made it what is in our times.

The country, whose inhabitants are a mixture of Issa (Somali) Afar, as well as small groups of Arabs, Ethiopians, French and Italians, is located on the horn of eastern Africa, facing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is bordered on the north by Eritrea, on the west by Ethiopia, and on the south by Somalia. The capital city of Djibouti which contains almost all the country’s inhabitants offers a whole series of restaurants many serving tasty traditional foods – dishes considered to be of international standard.  These delicious dishes have become a major incentive for drawing tourists to Djibouti

Among the most important influences found in the Djiboutian kitchen are the Indian and to some extent the British, whose seamen and merchants brought chappattis, lentils, and curries into the country.  The Portuguese were responsible for introducing pineapples as well as lemons, limes and oranges which the Arabs had first introduced into the Iberian Peninsula.  Also, both the Portuguese and Spaniards brought many other foods that they found in the New World such as corn, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes.  The French who still have a base in the country heavily enhanced the Djiboutian cuisine.

However, overshadowing them all are the Arab influences in the kitchen of Djibouti.  The Arabs were responsible for introducing into the county the spices of the East such as cardamom, cinnamon and saffron and taste enhancers such as pomegranate concentrate.  Islam, the country’s religion, and the closeness in proximity of its Arab neighbours are responsible for some of the dishes with their mouth-watering taste found in that African land today.  In the same manner as in their other ways of life, the Arabs and the Arabic language dominate Djiboutian culture.  This is so strong that in our times Djibouti has joined the Arab League.

Yet, in spite of absorbing these influences, Djibouti food has kept its own traditions in such dishes as the staple food of the country that include: Ingjera, a type of spongy bread; Soupe Dijboutienne or Fah-Fah; Yetakelt Wet, a spicy mixed vegetable stew, as well as Nitter Kebbeh, a spiced butter and its Banana Fritters. Even though there are common traditional dishes, others borrowed from foreign cultures are on the everyday menu – an indication that Dijbouti food is truly evolving into the modern world. One tourist, after visiting the country, wrote that one would have a lifetime culinary experience after tasting the succulent food of Djibouti.

Today there are many cooks in Djibouti who are passionate about their traditional fare. In hotels and other places where tourists stay, the chefs using only traditional basic ingredients create delicious variations of the original dishes.  They are proud of

their handiwork and one can notice this in the taste of their creations.

With these few recipes you can be one of these creative cooks.

Bread – Injera

Makes 16 six-inch Injeras

In its homeland the Horn of Africa, this rather tangy, slightly sour flatbread is used as a spoon to scoop up meat and vegetable stews.  Injera also rings the food on the platters on which the stews are served. It also can be eaten like pancakes with honey or syrup and whipped cream.

2 cups flour
2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt
Olive oil or any other type of oil for the pan

In a mixing bowl combine the flour and water then cover and set aside for 3 days.

Stir in the salt and set aside.

Heat a lightly oiled non-stick 6-inch pan then place a thin layer of batter, a little thicker than a crepe – about a 1/4 cup batter. Spread to cover the bottom part of the pan. Cook over medium/high heat for 2 minutes then cover and cook for another minute. Remove and stack over each other and keep warm until served.

Djibouti Lentils

Serves about 8

Djibouti Lentils is a classic stew of spiced lentils and found throughout the country.  Saturated by Indian influences with its chillies, ginger and other spices, it is a wholesome and tasty dish.

4 tablespoons butter

1 medium hot pepper, seeded and chopped

2 large red onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 cup split red lentils

1 cup stewed tomatoes
5 cups water
2 teaspoons Berbere Sauce or garam masala

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

Melt the butter in a saucepan then fry the hot pepper and onions over medium heat for 10 minutes or until the onions began to brown. Add the ginger and garlic then stir-fry over medium/high heat for 2 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium/low.  Cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring frequently and adding more water if needed. Serve hot with cooked rice or mashed potatoes.

Fah-Fah – Soupe Djiboutienne

Serves 8 to 10

Fah-Fah is a classic Djiboutian soup. Traditionally it is made with goat meat but lamb in my view, gives it more appeal to those not accustomed to goat meat.

1-pound lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

8 cups water
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups shredded cabbage
1 small bunch green onions, finely chopped

1 small bunch coriander, finely chopped
2 cups stewed tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 green chilli, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

Place the lamb and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer over medium/low heat for 30 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.  Simmer over medium/low heat or one hour or until the lamb is well-done.

Spicy Mixed Vegetable Stew – Yetakelt Wet

Serves 6 to 8

A spicy mixed vegetable stew, Yetakelt Wet is a vegetarian delight, especially if one likes moderately hot and spicy food.

5 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon paprika
2 cups fresh green beans, snapped into pieces

1 large carrot, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 large potato, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
2 medium tomatoes, chopped

4 tablespoons tomato paste, dissolved in 1 1/2 cups water
2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves


Melt the butter in a saucepan then fry the onions, garlic, garam masala and paprika for 5 minutes.  Add beans, carrot and potato then sauté for 10 minutes over medium/low heat, stirring occasionally.  Add tomatoes, tomato paste and water then bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer over medium/low heat for 35 minutes or until the vegetables are tender but not overcooked.  Stir in the remaining ingredients then cook for a further 5 minutes.  Serve with Injera bread, cooked rice and plain yogurt.

Fish and Rice Stew – Marake Kaloune

Serves about 8

This is my own version of a traditional Djiboutian fish stew recipe.  For a more succulent taste, I have substituted pomegranate concentrate for the tamarind paste and coriander leaves for the parsley.

2 teaspoons salt

1-pound salmon or similar fish fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

5 tablespoons cooking oil

3 medium potatoes, halved lengthwise and sliced into semi-rounds
1 large onion, sliced into thin rounds
1/4 cup finely chopped okra
1 eggplant, about 1/2-pound, peeled and diced into 1-inch


2 cups stewed tomatoes
1 cup chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 tablespoon pomegranate concentrate
6 garlic cloves crushed

1 teaspoon garam masala curry

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup rice, rinsed

2 extra cups water
Take 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and sprinkle it on the fish cubes then set aside for 1 hour. 

Heat oil in a saucepan then fry the fish cubes for 8 minutes, turning them over once.  Remove cubes and set aside.  In the same oil, fry the potatoes over medium heat for 5 minutes then add the onion. Gently stir-fry until potatoes begin to turn lightly brown, adding more oil if needed.  Add the remaining ingredients, except the rice, and enough water to cover then stir and bring to a boil, Cook covered over medium/low heat for 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary.  Stir in the rice and extra water and cover, then cook over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring and re-covering often to ensure rice does not stick to bottom of saucepan.  Serve hot.


Serves from 8 to 10

A similar soup also called Harira is prepared in Morocco.  This dish could be the same Moroccan one introduced into Djibouti by Moroccan merchants or travellers.

5 tablespoons butter

1/2-pound beef, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small hot pepper, de-seeded and finely chopped
2 cups finely chopped fresh coriander
2 tablespoons green or brown lentils
1 cup cooked chickpeas
2 cups stewed tomatoes
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
8 cups water

1/4 cup vermicelli broken into 1/2 inch pieces

3 lemons, sliced into wedges

Melt the butter in a saucepan then fry the meat over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Stir in onion and fry for a further 8 minutes, stirring a number of times.  Stir in garlic, hot pepper and coriander then stir fry for 2 minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients, except the vermicelli and lemons, then bring to a boil.  Cover and cook over medium heat for 50 minutes then add the vermicelli and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Serve hot with lemon wedges that can be squeezed into the Harira according to individual taste.

Banana Pancake/Fritters

Serves about 6

About two-thirds of Djibouti’s population live in the city of Djibouti and, no doubt, if you visit a Djiboutian home you will be served as a snack or as a dessert Banana pancake/fritters. They also make a great breakfast dish.

1 well-ripened large banana
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 cup water



Peel banana then place in a food processor and process until smooth.  Add the remaining ingredients, except, cinnamon and honey.  Process the mixture into batter the consistency of pancake batter, adding a little water or flour if needed.

Fry the same as pancakes over medium heat in a lightly greased frying pan or on a preheated pancake griddle until they brown, turning over once. Sprinkle with cinnamon then serve drizzled with honey.

These pancake fritters can also be deep fried as fritters then sprinkled with cinnamon then served drizzled with honey.