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]
Read full article...


Anonymous Simon said...


May 13, 2009 at 6:18 PM  
Anonymous Bridgestone said...

Nice article! Thanks for letting me know that you used my photo.

May 14, 2009 at 7:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WANT... RAW... BEEF...

June 8, 2009 at 6:19 PM  
Blogger ShadowMyth said...

Thanks for posting this. I have been on a raw meat diet for 7 years, and my health is excellent since. I was doing some research on raw meat recipes and found your article, much appreciated!

January 16, 2011 at 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny to read how non-habesha ppl know more about 'our' traditional food (culture) then we do..

TNX 4 sharing!

April 8, 2011 at 10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ShadowMyth, I was also searching for raw meat recipes!

BTW, so you have been on a raw meat diet for 7 years now??
The comment right above mine, is my comment too!

April 8, 2011 at 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Aul said...

Nice post

October 24, 2011 at 7:58 PM  

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