Contributor Jessie Beck hunts down Ethiopia’s favorite raw-beef dish.
Photo by Jessie Beck.
Before I landed in Ethiopia, my knowledge of Ethiopian food went no further than a few dinners on 14th Street in Washington D.C., where a large diaspora of Ethiopians and Eritreans have set up shop and, accordingly, some great Ethiopian restaurants. I only vaguely knew the ingredients of what I was eating. I became familiar with injera, the spongy fermented bread used to soak up and grasp other foods, but what were those little piles sharing the platter with it? Lentils? Beans? Cabbage? Even in my ignorance, I still loved trekking out to those places to get my hands messy dipping injera into the colorful array of who-knows-what.
In Ethiopia, I began to give those lumpy little piles names. But after three weeks, I had yet to try one of the country’s favorite dishes, one that had never made it to my table back in D.C.: kitfo. Throughout Ethiopia, there seems to be no shortage of ways to eat a good cut of beef, and kitfo, a minced-beef dish most famously done by the southwestern Gurage tribe, is consumed raw or very rare—much like kibbeh nayeh in Lebanon. I found the idea of eating raw meat adventurous, but my travel partner thought it might more likely be a recipe for intestinal disaster in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, I was determined to find a good bowl of kitfo on our last day in Addis Ababa.
Addis Ababa. Photo by Sam Effron
And thus we found ourselves following two of our new Ethiopian friends along a maze of small, winding streets in Addis’s neighborhood “22” towards Yohannes, a restaurant our friends claimed made the best kitfo in the city.
“I hope we can find a table,” one of them said to us, hinting at the place’s popularity. “I hope we can find the place,” I retorted as we stopped, yet again, to ask for directions. It was obvious that without our new friends, my friend and I would’ve been hopelessly lost. We probably would have managed to fudge the ordering process as well—although at Yohannes, kitfo is the only item on the menu.
The simplicity of its menu is a testament to the fact that this place does kitfo well. It was a little pricey by Ethiopian standards (160 birr/US$8 for a platter big enough to share between two and four people), but since kitfo is eaten raw or rare, it’s not something you want to be cheap about. While settling into our seats, our friends assured us that when making this dish, the butcher takes care to choose only the best parts of the cow, and only meat that was killed that day.
Within five minutes, a waiter came by to place a large silver platter on our table with injera, slices of kocho (a flatbread made from the bark of the ensetetree, traditional to Gurage cuisine), an orange-red mixture of spicy seasonings called mitmita, and a bowl of bright red, raw minced beef. I reached for the injera.
“Wait, don’t eat yet!” our friends commanded, and shouted something to the server.
A few minutes later, he passed by again to put a couple of heaping spoonfuls of ayibe, a soft cow cheese similar to chevre (dairy products are almost always made from cow’s milk in Ethiopia because of the predominance of Orthodox Christianity), and sauteed greens, or gomen, on the plate, then pour a mix of clarified butter and herbs called niter kibbeh on top of the meat.
Now we could eat.
I watched my friend tear off a piece of injera, dip it in the mitmita, then use it to pick up a bit of cheese, some greens, and some meat—and put it directly into my mouth, while I giggled at being fed like a small bird. In Ethiopia, this custom of feeding friends was a way of saying you care about the person, but also a convenient way to learn how to eat a new dish correctly.
Happily, the bite was soft and delicious. The flavors of the cheese, spices, greens, and butter helped cut the pungency of the meat—it was like a spicier version of steak tartare, the only Western dish I could compare it with. As for whether this adventurous dish left me regretting it later? Nope! Lesson learned: Don’t let the idea of eating raw meat in Ethiopia scare you. Just try it.
About the author: Originally from Washington D.C., Jessie Beck has followed her love of travel across the globe to Malta, Costa Rica, Seattle, and most recently Madagascar as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not biking or sampling local cuisine, she blogs about life as a nomad at beatnomad.com.