Ethiopians Are Risking Salmonella to Eat Raw Meat Delicacies
As the wealth of Addis Ababa grows, so too does the appetite for raw meat, especially on Easter Sunday. Many Ethiopians mark the end of the fasting season with kitfo, a dish consisting of raw minced ox meat.
All photos by the author.
The Easter Bunny does not visit Ethiopia, probably for fear of his life. Instead of chocolate, the African nation marks Orthodox Easter Sunday weeks after the Gregorian calendar celebration, with mass animal slaughter and a meat binge of epic proportions. Goat hides piled up to a metre high line busy city corners while goat heads, ox horns, and entrails overflow from neighbourhood bins.
Revelling in the meat fest is Beza Selemon. Tradition dictates that the 22-year-old accountant should be at home breaking a 56-day vegan fast with her family. Instead she's in town eating raw minced meat out of her boyfriend Dawit's hand—a sign of affection in Ethiopian culture.
Beza and Dawit are a new breed of Ethiopians; those from the booming capital Addis Ababa (affectionately known as "Addisynnians") who are snubbing Easter at home with the family in favour of joining friends at restaurants to enjoy a variety of raw meat dishes.
The aromatic doro wat, a saucy chicken stew, is traditionally eaten to break the fast but the most prized delicacy in Ethiopia is raw meat. It's fair to say that Ethiopians are flesh obsessed. Ox is the most common meat consumed raw but the more expensive goat is gaining momentum.
Despite official health warnings, Ethiopians still prefer to buy their animals live and slaughter them at home. It's a sign of respect for visitors and a practice they believe keeps the meat fresh.
Beza and Dawit are celebrating the end of fasting season by eating a highly desirable delicacy called kitfo, a dish consisting of raw minced ox meat.
"When I eat raw meat in the morning, I can go the whole day without eating anything else," says Dawit. "It has good nutritional value so it makes me feel strong."
The traditional accompaniment for kitfo is gomen, or collard greens, and it always comes with a side of ayib, a soft and crumbly fresh cheese. Of course, you eat it all by hand with injera, the spongy Ethiopian sourdough flatbread that Ethiopians scoop and soak up morsels of food with at every meal.
While kitfo is practically raw, some careful preparation is required. After the meat is minced, often by hand, it's massaged with herbed butter called niter kibe and mitmita, a turmeric-coloured spice blend. The molten butter ever so slightly warms the meat, causing the kitfo to melt in your mouth.
When the same dish is very lightly cooked, it is then known as leb leb but to most foreign eyes, it would still be considered too blue for comfort.
Although raw meat is Beza's favourite dish she says, "Raw meat dishes are most popular amongst men, particularly older men. Most of my female friends don't like raw meat. They prefer pizzas and burgers."
And her friends are not alone. Fast food such as burgers and fries are now voraciously consumed in Ethiopia especially by the younger generations in Addis.
Ethiopia might have been associated with famines over feasts in the past but the country is now the "lion of Africa" enjoying rapid economic growth. Despite this, per capita income remains some of the lowest in the world and nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in the sprawling capital of Addis Ababa, where sub-Saharan Africa's first metro train network is nearing completion.
As the wealth of the urban population grows, so too does the appetite for raw meat. Some raw meat dishes can cost up to 240birr (£8) per kilo, a price that is out of reach for most Ethiopians. Even for those that can afford it, raw meat dishes are reserved for special occasions.
Beza and Dawit are dining in a specialty kitfo restaurant, or kitfo bet (literally, "kitfo house") but there's another house of raw meat worship in Ethiopia. Siga bets ("meat houses") are dotted across the entire country. They're part butcher, part restaurant, and when you prefer your meat raw, these places make a whole lot of sense.
Here, skinned carcasses—usually oxen—hang in the open air of a small tiled room with street frontage. The lack of refrigeration, the resident fly populations, tapeworm, and salmonella risks don't concern patrons in the least.
In the upmarket suburb of Bole, Atnaf Kebede, owner of Atnaf siga bet, is passionate about meat. Atnaf fattens his oxen ensuring top quality. But unlike the majority of Ethiopians, Atnaf doesn't believe eating raw meat has any health benefits.
"It's just our culture to eat this way," he says. "For me personally, I find it easier to eat raw meat than salad. Salad feels heavier and harder to digest."
The most popular dish at these siga bets is cubed chunks of raw meat called tere siga (literally raw meat) and the tenderloin or chikena is the most prized cut. The butcher—or chef, depending on how you look at it—cuts your chosen slab of meat directly from a hanging carcass.
They then slice, cube or mince the meat to your liking. Tere siga is commonly eaten with mitmita, a runny mustard sauce called senafich and awaze, a spicy hot dipping sauce. White bread and injera are the under appreciated but trusty sidekicks in these dishes.
Tere siga can also be stewed or barbecued anywhere from raw to well-done. When cooked it's called tibs. It's a go-to meal for all Ethiopians as well being the closest equivalent Ethiopian cuisine has to steak. It's often served with rosemary, raw onion, and entire green chilli peppers.
Artist Tewolde Birhan and musician Mikias Assefawere up all night producing music in their studio. They too are opting to break the fast at a restaurant rather than at home with family. And they too are diving right into the raw meat over traditional Easter dishes.
They've ordered half a kilo of tere siga to share, which they then crumb in copious amounts of mitmita and eat with their bare hands. Eating without cutlery is one proud aspect of Ethiopian culture that doesn't look set to change anytime soon.
"We eat with our hands to really feel what we eat," says Tewolde. "We want to experience the texture, the smell and the temperature of the meat before we eat it."
There are many stories as to how and when Ethiopians developed a love of raw meat. Some say it developed as a military tactic during the 16th century so fighters could avoid detection by eating raw meat, rather than starting fires. Apparently at that time, it was all about function over fashion and was not considered to be a delicacy.
Tewolde, however, believes the trend began when the stelae (tall granite monuments similar to obelisks) of Axum in Ethiopia's North were being erected around the 4th century AD. Now a UNESCO archeological site, the story goes that while workers were busy erecting the monuments, they saved time and kept to deadline by eating raw meat rather than wasting time cooking.
Whenever and however it began, raw meat consumption is still very much engrained in modern Ethiopian culture. And while many aspects of Ethiopian culture are changing rapidly, the thirst for raw meat—especially at Easter—only appears to be growing.
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2015.