(c) San Diego Reader
I’m not particularly carnivorous in my eating habits. I like chicken and fish but I’m sure I could survive if I was never allowed to eat red meat again, though probably I’d be tormented by an occasional craving for a bacon sandwich. Thus, when I was first in Ethiopia, and when I was first out in a restaurant with my new Ethiopian colleagues, and when I first had a dishful of the local delicacy known as kitfo placed in front of me, I seriously wondered how much – or how little – of the stuff I’d be able to force down me.
Yes, kitfo can be intimidating for people who aren’t big eaters of red meat because it’s a dish consisting almost entirely of minced ox-meat – which, more intimidatingly still, comes uncooked.
However, its rawness is offset by the aromatic tastes of the things added to it – a spicy seasoning called mitmita and a ghee-like butter called niter kibe. In fact, these offset the stark raw tang of the meat deliciously, and the dish is made yet more flavoursome by the ayib, a sort of Ethiopian cottage cheese, and gomen, collard greens, that it’s commonly served with. And this being Ethiopia, where knives and forks are in short supply, it’s customary to eat kitfo by hand. You scoop it up with torn-off strips of injera, the local, sour, spongy flatbread. So you also get the taste of injera vying for attention in your now-crowded palate.
Thanks to these flavourings and accoutrements, I had surprisingly little difficulty eating that first helping of kitfo and during the following two years I became quite addicted to it. And I missed it when I returned home to Scotland where, needless to say, Ethiopian restaurants are pretty thin on the ground.
Actually, I suspect that if you ordered kitfo in an Ethiopian restaurant in Europe, what you’d get would be leb-leb, which is kitfo in a lightly-cooked form – the rawness of the original being deemed a little too much for wimpy Western sensibilities. But I’m sure a true connoisseur of Ethiopian cuisine would demand kitfo in all its visceral, uncooked glory.
I thought kitfo was great but I admit to having difficulty with kurt, another raw-meat staple of the Ethiopian food world. Kurt is chunks of flesh freshly cut from a carcass in a sega-bet, an establishment that’s part restaurant and part butcher’s shop. And… Well, that’s all you need to know.
For me, the big difference between kitfo and kurt was that while the former meat-dish had any fat removed before being minced, the latter was served up with scraps of fat clinging to its outside and seams of fat lurking within it. And it wasn’t the meat itself that dampened my enthusiasm for kurt, but those interminably-chewy, fatty bits I had to contend with. (It didn’t help that my colleagues liked to entertain me with grisly tales of folk having tapeworms approximately half-a-mile long, which they’d presumably acquired whilst eating kurt in the sega-bet, extracted from their anuses.)
One condiment you get with kurt is a mustardy sauce called senafich and I’d slather the stuff with that to take my mind, or more precisely my taste buds, off its discomforting fat-content.
My local sega-bet was also the source of the cheapest tej in the neighbourhood. Tej is a kind of smoky Ethiopian mead that I was extremely partial to. So munching my way through half a freshly-slaughtered ox, fat and all, was the necessary evil I had to put up with in order to guzzle large quantities of Ethiopian honey-wine.
How did Ethiopians develop a fondness for eating raw meat in various permutations? I’ve heard claims that at some point in history it grew out of a military necessity. When Ethiopian fighters were on the move, they didn’t want to give their position away to the enemy and so they got into the habit of eating their meat raw. This spared them having to light fires to cook on, which would produce tell-tale plumes of smoke.