If you have ever had Ethiopian food or any food from countries in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia), you have probably encountered Berbere. Like za’atar in the Middle East and harissa in North Africa, berbere is a staple seasoning that can be found across all kinds of dishes in various countries in Africa. Let’s learn a little more about what berbere is, what it tastes like, and how we can incorporate it into our cooking.
What is Berbere?
Berbere is a dry spice mix that is commonly used in the Horn of Africa, but it originates from Ethiopia, where it is also a key ingredient in dishes. It is a complex blend of hot chili peppers and black pepper, fragrant cardamom, clove, and cinnamon, as well as fenugreek and coriander. Other ingredients in berbere may include common African spices, such as cumin, paprika, nutmeg, allspice, onion, garlic, and ajwain, a seed-like fruit that tastes like a combination of anise and oregano. Berbere is like Ethiopia’s answer to chili powder, but with much more depth of flavor. Its flavor is best described as hot and spicy, with earthy, aromatic, and slightly sweet undertones.
Make Your Own Berbere
Luckily, the main spices in berbere are fairly common, so it is very easy to make at home. All you need is an empty bottle and a kitchen funnel. If you don’t have a kitchen funnel, make one yourself by rolling a piece of printer paper into a cone and taping down the edges. Trim the top, so it’s not too tall.
To your spice grinder, add 2 tablespoons chili powder, 4 teaspoons paprika, 4 teaspoons ground coriander, 4 teaspoons ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 teaspoon ground fenugreek, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice. You could also use whole spices, but you will need an electric spice grinder, mini coffee grinder, or a mortar and pestle to grind them into a fine powder.
How to Cook With Berbere
Traditionally, berbere is used in wat, a buttery, savory Ethiopian stew that can be made with meats, vegetables, or lentils and other pulses. Wats are unlike the stews that we’re familiar with in the West. They are very thick, almost like a gravy-based curry, and typically served over injera, a tangy flatbread made from teff, rather than in soup bowls. The technique for cooking wat is also very different from that of a Western stew; you begin by slow cooking chopped onion, without any oil or fat, in a skillet or pot, until most of their moisture is gone. Then, large quantities of niter kibbeh (Ethiopian clarified butter) or oil are added, along with additional aromatics and spices, like berbere, before all other ingredients are added. Starting wat this way is what allowed you to unlock the flavors of the aromatics and spices as well as build a rich, sauce-like base. This is best described as a method of braising.
You can try applying the Ethiopian braising method to healthier recipes like this Red Lentil Curry or this Mixed Herb Lentil and Wild Rice Soup; dry-cook the onions, then add the oil, and then add the garlic and your berbere spice blend until it is like a thin paste. You want to add more oil than the recipe calls for. Finally, add all other ingredients and follow the cook time in each recipe.
Tagine, a North African stew of berbere origin, is also the perfect food for you to add berbere to. Try it in this Roasted Vegetable and Chickpea Tagine or this Cauliflower and Chickpea Tagine, both of which are great to try if you are new to tagines. You can also add it to this Orange Vegetables Tagine With Peaches or this Seitan Tagine With Apricots and Dates to add even more complexity to their sweet and savory flavors. Berbere is traditionally paired with meat dishes as well as pulse and vegetable-based dishes, so it is perfect in this Tempeh Tagine Bowl. Or, add it to these Lentil and Pumpkin Tagine Stuffed Peppers for a fusion take on a North African favorite.
Add berbere to your favorite barbecue sauce, like in this BBQ Berbere Portobello Comfort Bake, then use the sauce to top veggie burgers like this Foolproof Mega Lentil Burger. Or, replace the Buffalo sauce in this Buffalo Tempeh Chili with berbere barbecue sauce. It can also be incorporated into other sauces, as in this recipe for Ethiopian Sweet Potato Burger, where the burgers are topped with a “nitter kibbeh” aioli with berbere spices.
You can also incorporate berbere into marinades. Follow the recipe for Caribbean jerk marinade here, but replace the dry herbs and spices with berbere instead. Then, use it to add flavor to these Sticky Baked BBQ Tempeh Strips, this Portobello Burger With Caramelized Onions and Tempeh Bacon, or turn these Korean Barbecue Tofu Wings into Ethiopian Barbecue Tofu Wings by substituting the Korean barbecue sauce for a sauce with berbere.
Berbere can also be incorporated into veggie meatball recipes, but choose recipes that use lentils or meaty ingredients like mushrooms and tempeh. For example, these Tempeh Meatballs, these Walnut Portobello Meatball Subs, and these Lentil, Walnut, and Millet Meatballs are all great candidates.
Where to Buy
Berbere can be tricky to find. It is not likely that you will find it in an everyday grocery store, but you might find it in Whole Foods or other specialty groceries. Your best bet at finding berbere would be to try an African or Middle Eastern grocery store. Otherwise, you can buy online. This Frontier Organic Berbere Seasoning is perfect for Ethiopian cooking, making stews, tagines, or adding to sauces. One 2.3-ounce bottle is $3.48. Or,try this Teeny Tiny Spice Company Organic Ethiopian Bereberé, which is on the hotter side. One 2.8-ounce tin costs $10.95. If you want to add more authentic flavor to your homemade berbere, try adding these Jiva Organic Ajwain Seeds. It can also be incorporated into any North African dish. One 7-ounce bag costs $7.99.
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Lead image source: Brian Yarvin/Shutterstock
The title of this article needs to be changed. Berbere is from East Africa not North Africa. This is ridiculous.