I Tried Beef Kitfo — the Ultimate Ethiopian Celebration Dish — And I Would Eat It Every Week If I Could

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I Tried Beef Kitfo

Credit: Cheryl Fenton

If there’s one thing I love about food, it’s having a meal you can taste. And I mean, really taste. (Translation: Gimme all the spices.) In my kitchen endeavors, I love to experiment with different flavors, discovering how different cultures’ go-to seasonings can take simple dishes and turn them up a notch or two.  

Because spices are the key element driving taste in Ethiopian cooking, I was excited to try one of the culture’s most praised recipes: beef kitfo. Known as the ultimate celebration dish typically served at weddings and to break fasts, kitfo is simply chunks of raw beef dipped in a spicy dip called awase. The version I was introduced to was created by Chef Marcus Samuelsson and is true to the one made by his wife’s tribe, the Gurage.

Consuming raw beef might be a hard pass for some, but it didn’t phase me at all. My burgers are bloody, and I enthusiastically dig into beef tartare, slurp up oysters, and order sushi once a week. For kitfo, however, the uncooked beef is simply cubed, and the melt-in-your-mouth pieces are smothered in spices and dipped in a spicy sauce using bread as the transportation vehicle. 

How to Make the Beef Kitfo with Awase

First, you have to gather your spices. While there were plenty of spices I was familiar with on the list — such as ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and fenugreek — others were new to me (I’m looking squarely at you, ajwain). I was able to find most of what I needed at Whole Foods, including Chinese mustard, horseradish, and berbere (a peppery Ethiopian spice that’s typically a blend of chiles, garlic, fenugreek, and a handful of warm spices like allspice and cinnamon). But after a couple of trips to various international grocers, I had to resort to Amazon for coriander seeds and ajwain (my research showed, however, that if you can’t find this spice, you can sub in thyme). 

For the three-part recipe, I began with the spiced butter. Known as the “secret ingredient” to many Ethiopian dishes, this element took the longest — but it was worth it. A clarified butter akin to ghee, it’s a rich, creamy element with an amazing depth of flavor, thanks to the infused spices. I slowly melted a ridiculous amount of butter (eight sticks!) in a saucepan over low heat along with garlic, shallots, ginger, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ajwain, fenugreek, pepper, cinnamon, and turmeric. The 30-minute gentle simmer is when the magic happens, infusing the spices into what will eventually become clarified butter after cooling and separating the milk solids with a cheesecloth. 

Next up was the awase — a dipping sauce with a serious kick. It’s good to note, though, that the heat created by berbere, cayenne, horseradish, and lemon juice isn’t for the faint of tastebuds. After an easy mix in a saucepan, it’s immediately set aside until needed at the end.

Using the same skillet, the kitfo base was a quick task. It brought the spiced butter into play along with the shallots, garlic, jalapeños, berbere, vinegar, and mustard and turned them into a thick paste in only a few minutes that’s later used to coat the beef. 

Because I didn’t have any injera, I opted to serve it with two pieces of whole-wheat bread — which I toasted quickly in the skillet so it absorbed the kitfo flavors. When all the elements were complete, I simply put out the bowl of kitfo, the awase, and the toast. I ripped off pieces of toast, piled it with kitfo, and dipped it in the awase. I served it with steamed spinach and toasted sesame seeds as a side. 

My Honest Review of Beef Kitfo with Awase

If my budget had room for it (and if my nutritionist would loosen up on lowering my red meat consumption), I would make this dish once a week. It was incredibly quick and easy to make and had plenty of flavor (although, to be truthful, I left out the jalapeño and I’m glad I did because I think its inclusion would have been too much). 

5 Tips for Making Beef Kitfo with Awase

  1. Lower the heat if needed. While making the spiced butter, keep an eye on it and lower the heat if necessary. You want a low simmer, not a boil. Don’t let the milk solids brown.
  2. Don’t rinse your skillet. You will be using the same skillet throughout the process of making the awase, the kitfo base, and toasted bread, but don’t rinse it between uses. You want all the flavors to combine.
  3. If you can afford it, spend the extra on quality beef. Since you’ll be eating the meat raw, get your beef from a reputable butcher if you can. The cut also matters, as it should melt in your mouth. The cut I chose from Allen Brothers was a tenderloin center and tail.
  4. Freeze the beef before cutting it. Chef Brian Poe of the Tip Tap Room, a Boston restaurant, advised me to freeze the beef for 45 minutes or less before cutting. I can attest that the quick-freeze tip makes it much easier to dice. 
  5. Store your leftover spiced butter for later use. This recipe is the gift that keeps on giving. Because it makes three cups of spiced butter, you can store the leftovers for months in your fridge to use for frying eggs, drizzling on popcorn, or adding a kick to grilled cheese. You can even use the awase as a veggie dip, a sauce for grilled fish, or a rub for rack of lamb.

Cheryl Fenton

Contributor

An editor once called her “the kitchen sink writer.” Translation – Boston-based freelancer Cheryl Fenton can write about anything, including the kitchen sink (peep her interior design pieces). Her bylines run the gamut from dailies like USAToday and the Boston Globe to monthly pubs including Whole Foods, Women’s Health & Fitness, and Cooking Light to book covers (there’s a travel guide for Fodor’s with her name on it and a fitness read she wrote with Tamilee Webb of Buns of Steel fame).

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