Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In search of Kitfo, and everything raw beef

Upon a request, I was on a mission to try Ethiopian food. Ethiopian is not a rage yet in Europe, but we did manage a table in one of Amsterdam's establishments. They serve the traditional Ethiopian platter - thick meat and vegetable stews (called wot) with sourdough pancakes (called injera). Injera doubly functions as side dish and spoon - you rip a chunk of the spongy injera and scoop a handful of wot. But the signature dish we were in pursuit was Kitfo, spicy minced beef served totally raw. Bacterias be damned.

An array of Ethiopian wot (stew): zegeni (lamb), kelwa (beef), spinach and goat's cheese, chickpeas, kitfo (minced beef), alecha (vegetable), zebhi dorho (chicken in red sauce); surrounded by injera (sourdough pancakes)

To our disappointment, however, in the end we got cooked kitfo - the default here while raw ones must be preordered. I have erroneously assumed other way around. Apparently, this is restaurant policy to not scare customers away. At least I had tartare before, so it's a matter of extrapolation to combine the soft, velvety texture of raw beef with the hot kitfo flavor. Even if I missed on eating raw, I had enough to start my Kitfo and raw beef research.

Ethiopian (and Eritrean) cuisine separates itself from Mother Africa. Due to the highly mountaineous region, Ethiopia was relatively isolated because trade and invasions were limited (flat plains, on the other hand, provide little resistance and allow little dumplings to travel across a continent).

The various meat and vegetable wot have a similar base, the berbere - a rose-red hot spice mix including cardamom, ginger among others, dried from some of the hottest peppers available. Surprisingly, the star of our night isn't Kitfo, nor any stew, but instead the edible plate injera. Made out of teff, an Ethiopian grain which is a good glucose-free substitute for bread, this spongy sourdough absorbs lots of sauce. When you finish your injera, you finish your meal.

The real, raw kitfo. Courtesy of Firman.

Kitfo is simple to describe: minced raw beef marinated in mitmita (another very hot chili powder spice blend) and niter kibbeh (clarified butter similar to ghee infused with spices). In the Western world, cooked kitfo is common, as one says, "It is cooked. Unless I know you or if you are Ethiopian, I cook it for you." Mitmita interacts the meat, acting like a beef ceviche, and - Kitfo eaters would love to believe - kills bacteria (see: are chiles really antibiotics?).

Ethiopians have more raw beef dishes (here's more Ethiopian food at Another national dish is gored gored, cubed (instead of minced) beef unmarinated and rolled in spices. Tiré Siga is high quality prime red meat (beef, goat, camel), freshly carved and dipped into lemon sauce and berbere. They should satisfy your inner lion.

Bizarre Foods - Raw Meat in Ethiopia

Eating like lions

Of course, raw beef isn't something that extraordinary around the world. The Tartare - minced, commonly with onions, capers and egg - is one well known and enjoyed in many variations in France, Netherlands, Germany to Poland, but many others exist. Here's a non-exhaustive list:
  • Koreans have yuk hoe - matchstick sized with soy sauce, black pepper, sesame.
  • Dutch have filet american - ground beef, similar to tartare, used for sandwiches.
  • Chileans have crudos - Chilean version of tartare.
  • Lebanese have kibbeh (though commonly lamb) - minced with bulgur, olive oil and seasonings.
  • Turks have cig kofte - minced with bulgur like kibbeh, shaped as meatballs.
  • Italians have carpaccio - thinly sliced, served with pine nuts and parmesan.
  • Japanese have gyuusashi - raw beef sushi, preferably from Kobe beef.

Raw beef around the world (links to source): French Tartare, Italian Carpaccio, Korean Yuk Hoe, Lebanese Kibbeh, Turkish Cig Kofte, and Japanese Gyuusashi.

Kitfo is often dubbed the "Ethiopian tartare" for simplicity, but historically it has no relation. Its origin is from warriors of old. True to a famous African proverb, "If you are in hiding, don’t light a fire," the warriors eat their meat raw to not give away their position. Curiously, this tactic is not applied in elsewhere - other armies care too much for well-cooked meals.

Meanwhile, tartare has a fanciful, though untrue, tale of being a culinary invention of the central Asian Tatar people. The legend goes that Tatars (who, in turn, have a dubious story of originating from the horrifying 'trrtrr' sound of charging horde of horses), or commonly grouped as Mongols, used to tenderize raw horse meat under their saddle while galloping on their horses. (see the history of steak tartare). The method then spread westward where it reached Russia, then eventual trade to Germany. It is here that the story converge with the other story - when Hamburg started to produce minced raw beef (of which some were cooked and inserted between two buns) but became en vogue in France.

Genghis Khan: ruler, emperor, general... experimental chef?

However this story is disputed (see Raw History of Steak Tartare and Steak Tartare wasn't part of Khan's territory), instead the meat under saddle technique was less culinary but more for comfort of both the horse and the rider's buttocks. Some of the worst meat was chosen, and after a day of dirt and horse sweat, it doesn't quite depict the "fresh" label that accompanies steak tartare today. While Mongols were bloodthirsty invaders, even they boiled everything - and drew the line on uncooked meat.


1. Ethiopian cuisine in Wikipedia [1]
2. [2]
3. Stranger in a strange land (good read) [3]
4. Africa cookbook: Ethiopia [4]
5. The history of Steak Tartare (pdf, and plenty of tartare recipes) [5]
6. Steak Tartare wasn't part of Khan's territory [6]
7. The raw history of steak tartare [7]
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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mole, mole, mole

Who wouldn't love to melt chocolate, even for a sauce over chicken? Mole poblano begins innocently, as you put in chilies, tomatoes, onions, nuts, raisins, and so on... then bam, into the mix comes chocolate and it becomes peculiar yet delightfully sinful. Chocolate lends to the thick, sweet and rich sauce known as the pinnacle of Mexican cuisine.

Turkey with Mole Poblano (recipe)

Of Moles and Menu

Mexican cuisine is too often misrepresented by Tex-Mex cuisine. People eat tacos, burritos, enchiladas and think that they have conquered most of the Mexico menu. In truth, authentic Mexican has plenty of varieties, divided at least into six main culinary regions: The North, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Yucatan. Each region has a distinct proportion of influence from European (Spanish, French and Italian) and pre-Columbian (Incan, Mayan) civilizations.

Meanwhile Tex-Mex is only a fraction of Mexican cuisine with adaptations - for instance, its extensive the use of cheese, especially cheddar, and the abundance on meat. Mexican cuisine does not use cheese. In pueblos, diets are concentrated on beans, rice or corn while fat intake are subtituted by cheaper means, such as avocados. See differences between authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex food.

Mole (simply, sauce) is arguably the crown of Mexican cuisine - although guacamole (avocado sauce) is the only one well-known outside of Mexico. The most famous amongst the hundreds of moles, because of its striking use of chocolate, is the Mole Poblano (Puebla being its origin). Traditional moles are dauntingly complex to make, requiring an incredible number of ingredients - 30 ingredients are not unusual, and legendary moles are known to use 100 ingredients. While it is not technically difficult, it is painstaking to individually roast chiles, nuts and seeds. The almonds, chili, seeds etc. then are melted together into what I would call a yummy supernut.

After a day of roasting anise seed, coriander seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, the final (and most enjoyable) stage is the melting of the chocolates.

Among the many ingredients are the chiles. Different moles require different combinations of chiles, each presenting its own flavors (smokiness, hotness, fruitiness, etc). I'm unfamiliar with all these varieties, and what also confused me was because dried chiles have new names. I've wondered what chipotle is, but its just a dried version of jalapenos. Chilaca in its dry form is pasilla, while chile poblano can be dried into ancho (if ripened) or mulato (if unripened). Here is a good list of chiles, chilis, chillis in Mexican Cuisine.

Food for the gods

Who invented this idea? Was it the Aztecs? Any conversation about Mole Poblano will eventually lead to the history of chocolate. Actually it wasn't the Aztecs, although they consumed the prototypical chocolate - a bitter, spicy drink the conquistadors deemed undrinkable, accidentally invented 3100 years ago as a celebratory beer-like beverage. This "food for the gods" was treated with high reverence - chocolate drunk by Montezuma was valued even more than its disposable golden goblets. It was not used for flavoring, the same way communion wine is not used for cooking.

Montezuma drank 50 cups of chocolatl a day. From Larry Gonick cartoons.

Also, cooking with chocolate would have been very expensive - cocoa beans are also highly valued as money. In 1513 the prices were: 4 cocoa beans for a rabbit, 10 cocoa beans for a prostitute and 100 cocoa beans for a slave (note: 30 years later, inflation brought the price of a rabbit to 100 cocoa beans). Here is a nice compilation of the history of chocolate.

Instead, the mole poblano was made by improvisation of less glamorous beginnings. In one version, 16th century nuns in Puebla, having nothing to prepare dinner for the Archbishop, simply threw everything into a pot, including chocolate. They simmered it over hours and basically, crossed their fingers. See History of Mole Poblano. Thankfully the Archbishop was tolerant of new, strange flavors or otherwise Mole Poblano would not have grown into Mexico's national dish.

1. Making pollo en mole poblano with Chef Miguel Ravago of Fonda San Miguel [1]
2. Mole Poblano: Mexico's National Food Dish [2]
3. Food Timeline FAQs: Mexican & Tex-Mex foods [3]
4. From aphrodisiac to health food: A cultural history of chocolate [4]
5. Mole Poblano Sauce [5]
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