Let’s say you’ve gone to war in the mountains. You and your men have a chance for a breather. You’ve found a secluded spot, easily defensible, near water and not far from a few cowherds, from whom you’ve liberated one of their fattest animals. Everybody’s hungry and it’s time to make camp. The enemy’s not far, but you don’t know exactly where he is. He doesn’t know where you are either, but you definitely don’t want to attract his attention—so no fires, guys, sorry. We’ll just have to eat this cow raw.
Something like that might have happened sometime back in Ethiopia’s epic history, an originating event that became the foundation of the nation’s love for raw beef. Ethiopians are said to have been the first people to learn to drink coffee. It’s not impossible that they were the people to invent steak tartare.
You might recognize this particular innovation as kitfo if you’re acquainted with the singular pleasures of Ethiopian food—and you certainly will if you were familiar with Uptown’s erstwhile Selam Market, a one-stop butcher shop for everything Ethiopian and edible. Starting in 2009, husband and wife Solomon and Selamawit Abebe offered a handful of fleshy treats at a few tables in their shop, among them said kitfo: freshly ground raw beef massaged with the spiced clarified butter known as niter kibbeh and a brick- orange spice blend called mitmita, loaded with chile, clove, cardamom, garlic, ginger, and more. It’s served with a mixture of the ricottalike cheese ayib and pureed collards on the side, and to eat it you scoop up gobs of each with the tangy, spongy flatbread injera, then pop them into your greedy mouth. If you’re among family and friends—and everybody’s getting along—you might deliver a morsel directly into the mouth of someone you love, an act, intimate as a kiss, called a gursha.
In response to years of encouragement from customers, the Abebes closed their butcher shop, then reopened it along with a restaurant and bar earlier this year. Selam Ethiopian Kitchen (originally Selam Market and Kitchen) certainly doesn’t call attention to itself. When I first encountered it, just before it opened, I saw bags of teff flour stacked in the brightly lit window and assumed it was just a dedicated injera bakery—but it’s much more than that.
There’s a glass display case in the front room from which bags of green coffee beans and the spicy jerky known as quanta are sold. The meat grinder is positioned here, and you can pick up your kitfo to go if you haven’t realized that just beyond this spare retail area there’s a full dining room and bar with roomy booths and flat-screen TVs broadcasting sports along with the horrors of the day. I simultaneously learned that James Comey had been fired and watched an MMA fight while carving morsels of raw beef from a fist-size chunk of bottom round, then swirling them through a mixture of mitmita, berbere-spiked awaze sauce, and a sinus-scouring mustard called senafitch.
With the present perilous state of global affairs, now might be the time we all learn to appreciate this preparation, known as tire siga, which happened to be another specialty of the Abebes’ old market. You can order lean bottom round, top round, loin, or, if you like it a little fatty, brisket. There’s a deft technique for enjoying this dish, involving a sharp steak knife deployed against the beef frighteningly close to the webbing between the fingers. But if you don’t feel you can master this trick, called q’wirt, you can dissect your tire siga on the plate safely, if less gracefully—and less bravely. Whichever way, tire siga seems to me the perfect drinking food, something to keep your strength up while you’re sipping beer and watching the fights.
A third signature of the butcher shop, not frequently encountered at the city’s other Ethiopian restaurants, has made the move as well. Goden tibs are short ribs grilled with rosemary, garlic, and jalapeño to an enticing char. Equally meaty, they offer the kind of mandibular exercise raw beef can’t.
It turns out there actually is a bakery at Selam as well, and customers come in and out picking up bags of Selamawit’s injera to go. The chef grew up cooking in her parents’ Addis Ababa restaurant, and since arriving in the U.S. she’s made it her business to perfect an injera recipe that maximizes use of the traditional teff flour and avoids unhealthier self-rising flours. That’s not such an easy feat in the States—injera batter made purely of teff doesn’t react well with the steel griddles typically used here as opposed to the traditional earthenware mitad.
Selamawit’s injera previously incorporated 15 percent buckwheat flour, and it was tangy and resilient. But now, with the acquisition of a new mitad, the restaurant has gone full teff. The pancake serves as the bed for the remainder of Selam’s menu—the usual assortment of meaty stews, pulses, and vegetables common to the Ethiopian repertoire. These can be easily sampled on a meatless yetsom beyeaynetu, or “fasting platter,” if like the Abebes, you’re a Coptic Christian and don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.
But there’s really no feast quite like sitting around a platter laden with a greater assortment of what the kitchen is capable of—animal and vegetable alike—from beg wot, a cubed lamb stew, to doro wot, a chicken-and-egg braise fueled by niter kibbeh and berbere sauce, to atkilt wot, a dish of turmeric-tinged cabbage and potatoes. Gomen, mild cooked-down collard greens, provides just the intestinal scrubbing such a spread requires.
Selam has a full bar featuring conventional cocktails, wine, and beer, but a small carafe of the mildly funky honey wine t’ej is the most appropriate accompaniment. And there’s no more fitting finish than the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the beans roasted over charcoal at the table—accompanied by the burning of incense—then ground, steeped, strained, and poured in the order of the participants’ seniority.
Selam’s signature dishes may have been born of war, but today they, along with the rest of the menu, provide an opportunity for the best kind of eating, one imitated in restaurants the world over. They’re the true form of the shared plate—and no one’s going to fight over that. v