Ethiopian Berbere Spice
What it is, and how to make your own.
With almost 200 countries on the face of our little planet, most people only have a connection with a handful of them. My first experience with Ethiopia was through its cuisine. It was over ten years ago, while wandering the city blocks of downtown St. Louis, that I found myself seated on the outdoor patio of the Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant. Funny enough, when I look up the place now, not only is it closed, but it also got less than rave reviews. I, on the other hand, loved it. Creamy textures, rich flavors... For a vegetarian like me, it was a golden find in the meat-happy midwest.
Now, with two trips to Ethiopia under my belt, and an Ethiopian daughter in my family, I'd say my connection with Ethiopia goes a bit beyond my love for its food. Yet, that's all the more reason to integrate the flavors of Africa into my weekly menu! The easiest way I've found to keep the taste of Ethiopia alive at mealtime has been through the use of a traditional spice blend called Berbere [bear-bur-ee].
This lens will give you a little background on Berbere, and help you bring its flavor into your favorite dish.
Flavor vs. Fire
How hot is it?
Ethiopian fare is often associated with being "spicy" hot, when in actuality, the heat index is up to the cook. When ordering in an Ethiopian restaurant, you might need to request a spicy meal. Otherwise, your plate will not rank high on the heat index. While Berbere does get some kick from its chili peppers, it has a robust flavor that goes far beyond simply "hot." When used in cooking, a little goes a long way, so in essence, there isn't enough pepper to set fire to a whole dish. Ethiopians often serve wot, a hearty stew that's dense enough to be picked up via pinched fingers, with injera, a flat, spongy bread that resembles a thin pancake. Because wot is thick, the Berbere (though distinct) doesn't overpower you with hand-waving heat. Dump a heaping spoonful over pasta, however, and you'll feel it!
Should you want to kick your cooking up a notch in the hot department, try Berbere's cousin, Mitmita. Mitmita is primarliy chilies, with just a few other accompanying, earthy spices like cloves and cardamom. The best way to serve a meal that satisfies everyone's spicy preferences, is to put a side of Mitmita on the table. Tell the fire fiends to use it liberally, and advise those with sensitive taste buds to steer clear.
Bebere, Broken Down
What's in it?
While there are thousands of Berbere variations out there, I'm sure every family has their own way of making it. The recipe that I first stumbled upon was right on the mark, and this is how she goes:
2 t. Cumin Seeds
4 Whole Cloves
¾ t. Cardamom Seeds
½ t. Whole Black Peppercorns
¼ t. Whole Allspice
1 t. Fenugreek Seeds
½ t. Coriander Seeds
8-10 Dried Red Chilies
½ t. Dried Ginger
¼ t. Turmeric
1 t. Salt
2 T. Sweet Hungarian Paprika
1/8 t. Cinnamon
1/8 t. Ground Cloves
- In small frying pan, on med-low heat, toast all whole spices and seeds for approx 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from heat and cool 5 minutes.
- Grind toasted spices in a spice grinder and set aside.
- Discard the stems from the chilies and grind.
- Pour toasted spices and chilies into a sifter and regrind any pieces that remain.
- Blend remaining powdered spices, then add toasted spices and chilies and mix well.
- Store in a well-sealed container.
*This makes a very small dish of spice. For a hefty amount that you can store and use as needed, multiply the recipe by 5.
Planning on giving some to a friend? Multiply by 10. This Recipe Converter may look a little archaic, but it works great!
WARNING! Grinding chilies yourself is an intense experience. Take a few breaks, get your small kids out of the kitchen, and open a window. You will likely choke up, and your eyes will burn. (Don't laugh, but I find this rather enjoyable! It's amazing what happens when the essence of a pepper seed goes airborne!)
For All Your Grinding Needs
My Mom gave us this 4-cup Cuisinart for Christmas years ago. At the time, I was kinda bummed it wasn't bigger, but it's small size has proved to be wonderfully convenient for a variety of kitchen tasks, including grinding spices.
A welcome addition to any busy kitchen, this easy-to-use 4-cup chopper/grinder works a lot like a regular food processor, but without having to lug out the full-size machine. Its durable 4-cup work bowl provides ample space for many everyday kitchen tasks such as grinding pine nuts for a batch of pesto, pureeing soup or baby food, or chopping onions and green peppers to throw onto a homemade pizza. The unit's auto-reversing SmartPower blade comes with a sharp edge for chopping and pureeing soft foods, plus a blunt edge for grinding up nuts, spices, and other harder foods. Even more, its BladeLock system keeps the blade securely in place during operation and when pouring. Other highlights include a simple touchpad control panel with "chop" and "grind" options, an easy-grip handle, and dishwasher-safe parts for quick cleanup. [Amazon Product Review]
The Real Deal - If blending the spice yourself isn't enough, you can grow your own chilies, and dry them on your back patio...
Taken from the balcony of our guest house room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Our neighbors had a really loud rooster, and some seriously tasty looking chilies.
Not the D.I.Y. Type? - You can order Berbere here:
Already made Berbere is still super flavorful, but you WILL miss out on making your whole house smell like an African kitchen for days! :)
Have You Cooked Ethiopian Dishes?
Ethiopian cooking is:
Get Cookin'! - Add to your international recipe collection.
Learn to cook the stuff Berbere was born for... along with other traditional delights like Injera: the crepe-like bread used in place of a fork, and Niter Kibbeh: spice infused butter.
Berbere has quickly gone from a sentimental notion to a mealtime staple in my home. We put it on EVERYTHING! Here are just a few ideas of how to use berbere in non-traditional cooking:
- Mix with a bit of olive oil to make a paste and use as a wet rub for chicken breasts or tofu.
- Whisk into a blend of sour cream and plain Greek-style yogurt and use it as a dip for vegetables or in place of yogurt sauce with grilled meats or falafel.
- Make a 3-to-1 mix of olive oil and berbere. Toss in some minced fresh garlic, then brush this mixture over pizza dough.
- Simmer in your favorite soup or toss in your favorite stir-fry for an added kick.
- Take Mexican favorites to a new level - Stir into tacos and burrito filling, or even chili!