(A shorter version of this post appeared as an article in the Los Angeles Times on July 14, 2011.)
WHEN JAMES BARKER HAD DINNER at the home of his Ethiopian hosts, he knew he’d have to be polite and eat whatever indigenous cuisine they offered him. He didn’t know it wouldn’t be cooked.
Ethiopia is “a nation who generally live on raw meat, and it cannot be supposed that they have made great advancement in their cuisine,” the Briton wrote in Narrative of a Journey to Shoa, an 1868 account of his odyssey through Ethiopia, where he went with a British army mission to free some captive foreigners from the clutches of Tewodros, the increasingly erratic Ethiopian emperor.
Nearly a sesqui-century later, it looks like Barker’s culinary insight was prescient: Ethiopians still relish raw meat, and the recipe hasn’t changed too much.
How could it? Raw is raw, no preparation required. You melt some Ethiopian butter (niter kibe), combine it with freshly ground beef, toss in the requisite spices, and voila, it’s what’s for dinner – a favorite Ethiopian dish called kitfo.
Unless, of course, you don’t fuss with all of that. Just take some bite-sized chunks of raw beef, dip it into the red pepper paste awaze, or the even hotter red pepper powder mitmita, and you’re feasting on gored gored, most likely the no-frills meal that so repelled Barker.
The even simpler tere siga, or “raw meat,” requires no preparation at all: Presented with long strips of meat, the gourmand uses a knife to cut off piece after piece. This ritual is called q’wirt, from the Amharic word q’warata, to cut.
In Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia, the word katafa means to mince or chop. That’s how kitfo got its name. Gored gored comes from gwarade, a type of sword.
Ayele Solomon prefers to eat the most basic version, tere siga, so he can serve himself.
“The cutting is part of the ceremony,” says Ayele, a businessman who lives in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. And besides, he adds, “you don’t want someone else’s filthy hands touching it.” Kitfo tends to be more of a restaurant dish, and chunks of meat a more informal and convivial type of thing you do with friends. “They’re both good in their own right,” he says. “The experience of tere siga is different – you usually go with a few people.”
Ayele, an American citizen, was born in Ethiopia and lived in the Bay Area, where his family still lives, from ages 11 to 22. He remembers eating raw meat for the first time as an older teen-ager in his family’s kitchen, where he “just grabbed a piece and put it into my mouth.”
Once in a while, Ayele would eat raw meat around the house, but his mother didn’t serve it too often at home. “It’s sort of a delicacy,” he says. “Japanese households don’t eat sushi all the time. And raw meat is sort of a male thing. Guys get together to eat raw meat. Women just began to eat it more recently.”
There is a hazard, though: You can get worms from the meat, and Ayele has. Some of his friends in Ethiopia won’t eat raw meat because “they don’t like it, or they don’t want to deal with the health consequences.” But that hasn’t stopped him from eating it because, he says, “it’s so good.”
The modern medicinal cure, which Ayele has taken, is a single pill, or a series of pills, depending on the type of worms you have. The traditional cure is koso, a plant that Ethiopians chew. Koso is the word both for tapeworm and for the plant that gets rid of it. In Amharic, they say “lekoso koso,” which literally means “for koso, koso,” or “koso for koso” as we would say.
To avoid health issues, Ayele says, Ethiopians have begun to eat raw goat meat, which doesn’t have tapeworms. It’s a different flavor, he admits, but it’s beginning to catch on. (In America, too, goat is becoming the new beef – at least among urban sophisticates.)
“It’s a different style of meat,” he says of beef tere siga back home. “In America, it’s grain fed, and it’s more watery because they try to fatten the animal. In Ethiopia, the flavors are concentrated. An extreme example would be like eating a grape versus a raisin.”
Menkir Tamrat, a long-time American, began eating raw meat as a child in Ethiopia around the age of 10, when his parents first permitted it.
“They start you out with cuts that are believed to be free of tapeworm,” he recalls. “The Ethiopian oxen variety has a hump (shagna) where the two shoulders meet, and the shagna is the most marbled meat as far as Ethiopian beef cuts go. Because of the high fat content of this cut, it’s believed that the tapeworm does not hibernate there. Sometimes, a mature, specially fattened lamb, sheep or goat, known as mukit, is screened if it can qualify for kurt. If the hind leg and the loin has a deep burgundy red meat with a slightly yellowish fat, then only those two cuts can be served as kurt. The younger animals are strictly for cooking.”
There’s plenty of Ethiopian literature going back centuries to document Ethiopian raw meat dishes like tere siga and gored gored. But James McCann, a professor at Boston University, and the author of Stirring the Pot, a book about African cuisine, believes kitfo is a modern variant.
“Expatriate Ethiopians have lots of cultural myths that claim historical background,” McCann says, “but they really only date from the Addis Ababa elite or upper-middle-class practice in the mid-20th Century. Kitfo is a fairly recent addition to the urban diet. Raw beef cut in chunks or strips has been around for a long time.”
Certainly the advent of modern kitchen appliances, which make chopping beef much easier, have hastened the preparation of beef for kitfo. But there are still plenty of traditionalists, even in Addis Ababa, who grind the meat the old-fashioned way: by hand, chopping it over and over until it’s as fine as the hamburger you buy in the market.
For all of the wonderful vegetarian or vegan dishes you’ll find on the Ethiopian table, and for all of the days of the year that Ethiopians Christians refrain from eating meat, beef is a favorite Ethiopian dish, and a love of raw meat goes back many centuries in the culture.
Kitfo, which consists of freshly ground beef and seasonings, is the most common version of raw meat served at Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. It came to the table from the Gurage people, who make up about 2.5 percent of the population of Ethiopia, a country with more than 80 indigenous languages. Gurages are proud to have contributed kitfo to the national cuisine, the term used to describe the dishes served at Ethiopian restaurants.
In Ethiopia, the dish is so beloved that it’s often served at a kitfo bet – that is, “kitfo house,” a restaurant that specializes in kitfo. There are many such places all over Ethiopia, although as McCann notes, “Meat has gotten very expensive relative to incomes in urban Ethiopia. But people still find ways to eat raw meat, and butchers now sell raw meat in restaurants. Before raw beef came only from neighborhood collective purchases of an ox or at a gibir [feast].”
Betesaida Antonios, an Ethiopian student at Addis Ababa University, even wrote his master’s thesis about an Addis Ababa kitfo bet. His paper further refines the degrees to which you can get your kitfo cooked: tire is raw, mok yale (“to be warm”) is very lightly cooked, leb leb (“to heat up”) is lightly cooked, geba yale (“to go in the pan”) is semi-cooked, and tibs (also referred to as yebesele) is fully cooked. (Click chart above to enlarge.) You could say this is the Ethiopian version of rare, medium rare, medium, medium well and well done. McCann says these terms are “neologisms that show an elaboration of cuisine.”
Berhanu Asfaw grew up in the Gurage town of Muher, Ethiopia, and he ate his kitfo raw from about the age of 5 or 6, when children could first eat raw meat. At Meskel, an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian holiday, children go from home to home, greeting the elders, and at each stop, their hosts have kitfo prepared especially for them.
In Ethiopia, Berhanu says, women also enjoy raw meat, “but you probably don’t see a woman eating it, especially in the countryside, unless a man accompanies them.” His elderly father’s doctor has told him to stop eating raw meat, but “he craves it a lot,” Berhanu says, and does it anyway.
Now Berhanu serves kitfo and gored gored at Messob, the restaurant on South Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia that he co-owns with his brother Getahun. The menu describes the beef as “lean” but doesn’t mention raw, so his servers ask patrons how they want it. Non-Ethiopians usually like it to be cooked just a little, but Berhanu’s Ethiopian customers prefer it raw.
At his restaurant, Berhanu recalls once hosting an American who had visited Ethiopia and developed a taste for raw meat. When the fellow brought a group to Messob, he ordered kitfo for himself and a variety of cooked dishes for his friends. But when the kitfo arrived, and the others tasted it, they liked it so much that they requested another order for themselves.
Most of the city’s Ethiopian restaurants offer kitfo, but like Messob, they don’t all describe it as raw on their menus. If you want your kitfo slightly cooked – what Americans would call rare – ask for it lebleb. Fully cooked is yebesele.
Berhanu recommends lean red cuts of meat, like top round, for raw beef dishes, and Messob freshly grinds the meat for kitfo, often right when it’s ordered. “You can’t even grind it and keep it the whole day and serve it in the evening,” he says, because it loses its flavor.
At Selam Market and Deli on West Pico Boulevard, Samuel Mekonnen sells more meat for kitfo than for any other raw dish, and he grinds it fresh at his market’s butcher shop. He, too, recommends very lean cuts like top round, ball tips or even the costlier rib eye.
“Raw meat has a unique taste,” says Samuel, who co-owns the market with his wife, Amsalework Jemberu. “It’s really tangy. If you try to eat soft meat as raw meat, it doesn’t taste as good. It has to be firm.”
Samuel says women enjoy raw meat just as much as men do, although they tend to eat it more at family gathering. When men gather at a t’ej bet – that is, a place that serves t’ej, the Ethiopian honey wine – women don’t usually join them.
The traditional accompaniment for kitfo is gomen, or collard greens, and it always comes with a side of ayib, the soft Ethiopian cheese. Of course, you eat it all by hand with injera, the spongy Ethiopian sourdough flatbread that serves as plate and cutlery. (You’ll find recipes for kitfo, gomen and ayib on my Recipes page.)
Among Gurages in Ethiopia, though, injera isn’t the primary accompaniment: Eating kitfo with injera is an urban (i.e., Addis Ababa) addition that happened when it left the countryside and reached the big city, taking its place atop injera with all the other dishes.
Gurage culture eats raw meat with qocho, a bread-like food made from the powdered bark of the enset plant, a staple food among many Ethiopian cultures. In the absence of the injera, they scoop up the kitfo with a long spoon made of a bull’s horn and called a yeqand mankiya (literally, “spoon of horn”). Enset is almost impossible to get in the U.S., so you’ll only find qocho at a few Ethiopian restaurants willing to import it from back home. (Read my blog post all about qocho.)
Berhanu enjoys tere siga in the U.S., but for health reasons – he’s had worms, too – he no longer eats it when he visits Ethiopia. He remembers talking to his grandfather back home about his culture’s love of raw meat. The reasons, he learned, were both practical and primal.
“When they had different wars, a long time ago, it was just easier to kill something and eat tere siga,” Berhanu recalls his grandfather telling him. “It also makes you more macho, and they like that. You have a lot of things that aren’t cooked over there.”
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RAW MEAT IS SO WELL KNOWN in Ethiopian history and culture that it even makes its way into the literature.
In his 1973 novel The Hammer of God – a story of the great-cum-doomed Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II (or Theodore as the English called him) – the British writer Alan Scholefield describes an 1860s meal between Tewodros and his English guests that revolves around raw meat:
The King held one end of a long strip of raw, still steaming meat in his mouth, took the other in his left hand and stretched it above his head so that his face turned to the roof. Then, with his right hand, he caught up a sharp sword with a hooked, scimitar-like blade and slashed upwards across his face; as he did so he closed his eyes. The blade sliced cleanly through the brundo about two millimeters from his lips. He opened his eyes. He began to laugh. He choked on the meat and washed it down with a draught of arracky. He laughed so much that tears ran down his cheeks. When he recovered somewhat he turned to Lord Lamming and said, “One day, my dear lord, I shall cut off my lips or my nose or, if God wishes, both.”
The ritual Scholefield describe is q’wirt, and the drink to which he refers and writes more phonetically is areqe, a sort of Ethiopian ouzo or absinthe, very strong and intoxicating.
Soon after Tewodros indulges, he make sure that his servants take care of his guests. Scholefield no doubt drew this vivid passage – in which he refers to injera as teff – from historical accounts of the time.
One of the servants came running in with a thin shaving of raw meat about a yard long, cut from the still-hot corpse of a newly-slaughtered beast, and held it for Sears as he gripped one end in his mouth and slashed through the meat as close to his lips as he dared.
“No! No!” the King laughed. “Try it with your eyes closed!”
For the benefit of Lord and Lady Lamming, Franklin translated the King’s Amharic. Sears needed no such help, he had already familiarized himself with the language. He slashed again, keeping his eyes closed until the last moment, when panic forced them open. He laughed. The King laughed. Lord Lamming sat there, frowning.
Yohannis ran in with a strip of brundo which he proceeded to douse with pepper sauce. He offered it to Franklin, who shook his head. He had eaten brundo many times but now, sitting beside Lady Lamming, he found that his appetite for the meat had vanished. Yohannis could not believe the refusal. He offered it again.
“Please don’t deprive yourself on my account,” her ladyship said. Franklin shook his head and waved his hand at Yohannis; the Abyssinian’s eyes shone. He stuffed his mouth with the bloody meat and sawed it off above his lips. He was already partially drunk. In deference to the Lammings the King ordered some of the brundo to be grilled on the open fire in the room and the smell of searing meat and the smoke from the burning fat joined the other smells.
More food was brought into the pulsing room; more beasts were slaughtered just outside the doorway, their agonized bellowing mingling with the noise of the guests who, thinking they might be forgotten, were shouting with food-filled mouths for more. So plentiful was the supply of meat that the guests ate very little of the chappatti-like teff which came in round panniers, using it instead to wipe their hands on, then flinging it down on the rush floor, where is was snatched up by servants.
The King shook his head. He drank and then spoke through Franklin to Lord Lamming. “The Chamberlain asks whether your lordship will not have more brundo?”
“Thank the Chamberlain,” Lamming said ponderously. “Tell him I have eaten well.”
Perhaps by British standards. But by Ethiopian standards, not nearly well enough.
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THERE ARE MANY VIDEOS on the web that show Ethiopians enjoying raw meat. Here are links to a few of them:
♦ Visit an Ethiopian siga bet – literally, “meat house” – where they cut your chosen slab of meat from a skinned animal hanging on a hook. Watch the video.
♦ In an Ethiopian kitchen, a woman chops meat by hand to make kitfo. Watch the video.
♦ Here’s a behind-the scenes look at a restaurant in Addis Ababa that specializes in raw meat. Watch the video.
♦ Andrew Zimmern, the host of The Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” did an hour-long show on Ethiopian delicacies, and along the way, he ate freshly killed raw meat. Watch the video.
♦ In this short video, Ethiopians practice q’wirt, the act of cutting smaller pieces of raw meat from a larger strip of it. Watch the video.
♦ At a restaurant in Addis Ababa, some convivial European tourists enjoy a meal of gored gored. Watch the video.
♦ A pair of Angelenos enjoy kitfo at Awash, an Ethiopian restaurant on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. The owner, Mohamed Ibrahim, has lived in the U.S. since the early 1960s and attended the opening of the first Ethiopian restaurant in America, which I write about at length in my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. He was a friend of the restaurant’s owner, Beyene Guililat. Watch the video.
University of Pittsburgh