In Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, a cuisine of uncooked meat called Tere Siga is widespread. JUSTICE NWAFOR takes a look at the practice, its history, and the health implications of eating uncooked meat, no matter what it is called.
When James Baker, a British tourist, visited Ethiopia, he was amazed by the country’s litany of unique cultural practices. So, when his host took him to his house and informed him that a meal was almost ready, he sat down, ready to eat, knowing full well that he had to eat whatever indigenous food his host offered him.
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Baker never knew something bizarre was in the offing. A few minutes later, his host dashed in with a bowl containing freshly cut, uncooked meat and presented it to him. That was the meal. He would later learn that it is a deep-rooted practice and cuisine called Tere Siga. This happened over 150 years ago. But up until now, Tere Siga has been a cherished cuisine in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is “a nation who generally lives on raw meat, and it cannot be supposed that they have made great advancements in their cuisine,” Baker wrote in “Narrative of a Journey to Shoa,” an 1868 account of his Ethiopian odyssey, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times.
In Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, a good number of its five million residents still see it as a healthy cuisine, especially during celebrations and weekends. Some meat shops in the country are dedicated to the sale of Tere Siga, especially in city centers, where a kilogram goes for between $5 and $10. In rural areas, locals usually make the cuisine from oxen, cows, and goats they rear and slaughter at will.
Tere Siga, which translates to “raw meat,” is exactly what it sounds like: raw meat that is typically taken from a cow carcass and served with awaze (a hot dipping sauce), mitmita (a powdered hot spice blend), and senafich (mustard sauce).
Long time coming
Everything about Tere Siga Cuisine is laced with culture. The most popular version of mitmita is made up of dried chilli peppers, cumin seeds, green cardamom, korarima seeds (Ethiopian cardamom), black pepper, allspice, dried ginger, dried garlic, cloves, cinnamon, and coarse salt.
This spice mixture has many variations rather than just one recipe. Chilli and korarima seeds are the two key components in this spice mixture, and the making of mitmita is a tradition passed down from mother to daughter.
The varied history of Tera Siga
There are several stories about the origin of Tere Siga in Ethiopia. According to one folktale Tere, Siga is at least three thousand years old. It claims that Ethiopians began eating raw meat in order to avoid being colonised by the Italians, who supposedly invaded their country thousands of years ago. They couldn’t cook the meat because lighting fire to prepare it could blow their cover as they hid from the Italians. Thus, they took it raw.
The tradition is now deeply rooted in the communities and carries sentimental value for Ethiopians. It is a sign of honour for the ancestors, and the culture is passed from one generation to another.
According to a different account, Ethiopians first started consuming raw meat in the 16th century, during the Abyssinian-Adal War. The war took place between the Ethiopian Empire and the Somali Adal Sultanate in the sixteenth century and lasted a century.
Ethiopian soldiers started eating raw flesh during these early Somali victories over their enemies as a tactical move. While evading the Somali Adal army, the soldiers started eating raw meat at night for fear that the smoke and fire would give away their location as Somali troops moved into the Blue Nile and Lake Tana.
This military tactic of avoiding detection developed into a delicacy during the Conquest of Abyssinia, and ever since then, Ethiopia has developed a taste for raw meat.
Over the years, nutritionists and medical experts have raised concerns about the dangers of eating uncooked meat, especially from cattle that bred in unhealthy environments.
Dr Kera Nyemb-Diop is a nutritionist. She is concerned mostly about the dangers of eating uncooked meat without following safer procedures. For her, contracting a foodborne illness brought on by dangerous pathogens like salmonella, E. coli, or yersinia poses the biggest risk.
“The steps you can take to increase food safety and avoid foodborne illnesses are: eating very fresh meat (consume it as soon as possible after slaughter), keeping meat refrigerated (below 5C) until you are ready to serve, and avoiding cross-contamination by using separate utensils and keeping it away from other foods,” she said.
Relatedly, Chidera Okere, a registered nutritionist with the Nutrition Society of Nigeria, says the fact that meat is uncooked doesn’t take away its nutritional value. “Uncooked meat is a good source of protein of high biological value,” she said, emphasizing that “it contains minerals such as iron, zinc, selenium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium. It also contains fats, vitamins A and B vitamins.”
Okere, however, warned that the nutritional composition varies depending on factors such as the type of meat, the meat cut, the breed of animal, the climatic conditions, and the kind of feed that the animal consumed.
But it’s not all good. The nutritionist further explained that there are many dangers to eating uncooked food. “Uncooked meat can be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria that can lead to food poisoning,” she said. “These bacteria include Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter. Symptoms of food poisoning include nausea, stomach discomfort, vomiting, and diarrhoea. These symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe and may possibly lead to hospitalisation or death.”
Also, uncooked meats may contain parasites like tapeworms, which cause infection in humans if ingested.
Having meat cooked before eating is way better than eating it uncooked, no matter the tradition or long-standing culture that is attached to it, Okere advised. “Properly cooked meat is safer to consume because cooking can destroy the pathogenic bacteria and parasites that lead to food poisoning and infections, while uncooked meat containing these parasites and microorganisms increases the chances of having foodborne diseases,” said Okere.
“Cooking meat breaks down tough fibres and connective tissues which makes the meat more digestible and increases absorption of some nutrients, unlike uncooked meat. You should cook your meat properly,” she advised.
Dr Golibe Ugochukwu is a public health expert with many years of experience. He said there should be no reason why people should consume uncooked meat. He echoed the sentiments of Okere about the dangers of being infected by tapeworm and recalled that there was a time when Avian Influenza spread because people were ate chicken that was not cooked or only partially cooked.
He added that cooking meat does not in any way destroy the nutrients in it.
“If you grow up eating cooked meat and survive, your body may have developed immunity against some of the organisms that come with eating uncooked meat, but if the average person decides to eat uncooked meat, he will most likely contract one or more illnesses. It is not hygienic.”
Dr Golibe further warned that “a lot of people may claim that their culture has been doing that for years, but that’s particular to them. If you decide to spread it to other places, a lot of people may die.”