"Dulet reminds me of the kind of cooking I love best: something with offal, that can be eaten with fingers."
I have eaten dulet (an Ethiopian combination of beef, liver, and lamb tripe) for four straight meals in a row. This is a record, even for me.
The first of those meals took place at Lalibela, a popular Ethiopian restaurant in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I have been going to Lalibela for six years now and it's usually frequented by Ethiopian taxi cab drivers. Over the years the TV screens on the wall have progressed from tube to high-definition flat screen, but soccer is always on. For years I ordered the beef tongue and tripe, which is slowly simmered with some combination of dried red chili peppers, cloves, ginger, and all spice.
This time at Lalibela they were out of beef tripe, but they had lamb tripe in the kitchen. The waitresses ask me every time I order a dish containing organs if I am sure that's what I want. Yes, I always reply without hesitation.
If you hesitate they may alter their preparation of the dish, though I suppose that risk is present regardless.
"Do you want the dulet raw or cooked?" she asked.
This gives me pause for consideration. I am eating with a large group (some of them are vegetarians) and I don't want to offend even more people than I already have.
"How do you like your dulet?" I ask, hoping she gives me her preference rather than what she thinks she would like if she were me.
"Very lightly cooked will be good, I think" she responds, and collects our menus.
In less than ten minutes the dulet arrives flanked by an assortment of vegetables. There are bits of lightly cooked ground beef—barely cooked indeed, as pink flesh peeks through spots of brown, and the imperceptible yet forceful taste of liver, also barely cooked. There are minced bits of lamb tripe. I think I spot the tiny dotted bumps of the omasum section of tripe, similar in structure in all ruminants, but I can't be sure.
The pile of dulet is loose but compacts beautifully pinched with a fingerful of injera, that delightfully spongy sour bread of teff flour served underneath and alongside all Ethiopian fare. Injera acts as utensil, food, and sponge in one, which is especially good for me since my fingers are generally slick with meat juices and fat in the first place.
Without even having tried dulet raw before, I am already certain that dulet lightly cooked, even if it's a bastardization of the original conception, is delicious. I can't seem to eat enough of the bits of tripe juxtaposed against the softer meat and liver, and the mixture is studded with jalapenos and onions and a balanced blend of spices.
After the meal, I walk to the U-street corridor, where Ethiopian restaurants live in harmony with soul food joints. Between the injera and the ham hocks and fried chicken, I could easily spend days eating in the U-street corridor. My destination is Habesha Market, a cafeteria-style restaurant on 9th Street. The kitchen is directly behind the row of tempting dishes kept in the warmers, where you can mix and match among an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes, all of which are sold for a song.
Again, I choose their dish of beef tripe and tongue and request a separate a separate order of dulet. And yes, I know that dulet is made with tripe and liver, and yes, because this time I am alone, I most definitely want the dish to be raw.
The dulet arrives with a simple salad of lettuce and tomatoes and a dollop of chickpeas on the side. Though I am still sated from lunch, I dive into this second meal of dulet with abandon. I can see the bits of tripe and onion in the smooth, dark mix of raw beef and lightly cooked liver. Each bite is deeply satisfying, no less so because every time I eat raw meat I understand something more of the wildness of meat, of something that we are not altogether meant to eat given the natural inclination of flesh to fire.
Raw, the dulet is impossibly creamy and assertively spiced with mitmita, that Ethiopian blend of dried red chilies with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and cumin. Bite after bite reveals the complexity of the dish as well as its similarity to the more commonly recognized Ethiopian dish of beef kifte, in which raw beef is ground or finely chopped with onions and and spiced with mitmita.
The similarity ends with the rawness of the meat and the overlap of spices. I very much prefer dulet to kifte: liver in dulet makes the mixture extraordinarily dense and creamy; the bits of tripe add textural contrast to an other otherwise uniformly textured dish.
The manager has been watching me eating the dish. He stares but it's difficult for me to enjoy the dulet and feel self-conscious at the same time. Finally he walks over to my table and asks, still incredulous, if I am enjoying the dulet.
"Where have you had it before?" he asks.
"At Lalibela," I answer casually. "I like tongue and tripe." I point to the other meat dish I had purchased, the beef tongue and honeycomb tripe sitting next to the collard greens. He seems almost incapable of believing that I like to eat these kinds of things, but returns to the kitchen to work.
As I leave to catch my bus back to Brooklyn, I ask him for the recipe for the dish. He says he will show me how to make the dish the next time I come. I tell him I will come back soon lest he renege on his offer.
When I'm home in the city I take out the leftover dulet from my bag and have it as a midnight snack before bedtime. The meat is still soft and fresh, though the injera has lost some of its original dexterity. The next morning, my breakfast is a quick saute of dulet, which can no longer be eaten raw given its time in the refrigerator. Even cooked to medium, the mixture of beef and liver remains juicy. Cooked through, the beef fat in the mixture mingles with the niter kibbeh, the spiced and clarified butter that's used in many Ethiopian dishes. It's not often that I find an offal dish of which I grow so fond, so quickly, but dulet reminds me of the kind of cooking I love best: something with offal, that can be eaten with fingers.