For this week’s review, I headed to the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg to try Kedija Srage’s vegan Ethiopian cuisine at Bunna Cafe (1084 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-295-2227). Her vegan interpretations of tibs and wots, using mushrooms in place of meat and olive oil in place of butter, are a thrilling counterpoint to many non-vegan standards, in many cases just as deeply flavored and more nuanced. And although it sounds like a concept manufactured in Brooklyn, vegetarian dishes have a long history in Ethiopian cuisine thanks to religious fasting. However, one of the traditional dishes you most certainly can’t enjoy if you’re eating vegan Ethiopian food is kitfo, a tartare-like preparation of raw beef.
Although the dish is similar to Western steak tartare, wherein chopped or ground raw beef is seasoned with everything from capers and onions to Worcestershire sauce and mustard, Kitfo has a specific texture and color thanks to a combination of the spiced, clarified butter called niter kibbeh, and mitmita, a ruddy spice blend of chilies, cardamom, and clove.
At Awash (947 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-961-1416), a local Ethiopian restaurant chain with locations in the East Village, Upper West Side, and Cobble Hill, three varieties of kitfo are offered. Although traditionally eaten raw, you can also have this dish prepared seared or full-on cooked to well-done. The base version ($16) features just beef, butter, and spice, and it’s a fine introduction to the dish — perfect for tasting the grassy, bloody flavors of the raw meat. Less common is “Yegurage kitfo” ($17), which pairs the beef with stewed collard greens and ayibe, a mild white cheese which Awash makes in-house. The additions make the mound look like a giant, uncooked meatball, and the cheese binds everything with its gentle creaminess.
On a recent lunch jaunt, I opted for Awash’s third rendition of the dish. Called “special kitfo” ($17), it’s a proprietary recipe that adds jalapeños and onions to the mix along with the spiced butter and mitmita, resulting in a bracing, crimson heap. This preparation, which seems to be particular to the Awash kitchens from what we can tell, might just be our favorite style of the dish yet. More than the pervasive heat from those chilies, it’s the undercurrent of the pepper’s vegetal flavor that’s truly special. Without overpowering the dish, both the chilies and astringent, raw onions are in surprising balance.The meat usually comes in its own cast iron bowl, but before I had the opportunity to take a photo, my server had released the meat from its black cauldron with a spoon, plopping it onto the injera that formed the foundation of my lunch special.
Despite being raw, it doesn’t feel light the way some Western tartares do, and although it’s probably best to order it as a shared starter, if by some chance you’re preparing for battle (a traditional time for eating still-bloody meat), by all means, enjoy a half pound of raw cow straight to the dome.