You likely know about kitfo, the finely chopped beef mixed with spiced Ethiopian butter and served with awaze or a berbere spice blend or fresh crumbled cheese. (Or perhaps all three at once.) If you’re lucky — and don’t look like a total Anglo wimp — the Ethiopian restaurant at which you’ve ordered kitfo will serve it to you raw. If you do look like a total Anglo wimp (and I’m looking at you in the mirror, my man), you will have to practically beg to have it served raw.

Kitfo, of course, isn’t the only raw meat offered in Ethiopian cooking (or non-cooking). There’s also tere saga, sometimes known as kurt, but that is much harder to find in U.S. Ethiopian restaurants. I’ve only seen it at Abay Market and Meaza. But back in Ethiopia, tere sega is considered a traditional ceremonial dish, often seen at weddings.

I mention these two dishes as prelude to a question I hadn’t thought about until this week: Why do Ethiopians eat so much raw meat? The question was raised to me by Jabriel Ballentine, a native of the Virgin Islands who’s doing some consulting work for Almaz on U Street.  He knew the answer.

He tells me that raw meat was a war-time invention in Ethiopia — or perhaps “necessity” is a better word, given that troops that cooked their meats were sniffed out by the enemy and slaughtered in their sleep. Ballentine said the troops finally learned it was the smell of roasting meats, and the smoke from their fires, that gave them away. Raw meat, then, was an act of self-preservation.

Or at least it was a century or centuries ago. Ballentine couldn’t remember exactly which war inspired the raw-meat cuisine.

But sometimes Ballentine likes to tease his Ethiopian friends.  “The war is over now,” he’ll tell them. “We can cook the meat now.”

Just to double-check this tale, I consulted Marcus Samuelsson‘s excellent cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine. There, on page 295, is a recipe for “steak tartare.” (I guess when you’re a celebrity chef with a book to sell to America, you prefer fine-dining terms over those icky foreign words.)

The first sentence of Samuelsson’s recipe for kitfo reads: “Legend has it that kitfo — the Ethiopian Steak Tartare that inspired this recipe — came about during one of the many wars between the Christian Gurage and the Muslims, when the Gurages were hiding out in the mountains and needed to develop quick-cooking meals they could prepare without attracting attention from big, smoking fires.”

There’s either some truth here or a wonderful Ethiopian myth.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery