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Berbere: The Ethiopian/Eritrean Spice You Didn't Know You Needed

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

Hi Foodies,

I am so happy to be sharing this blog with you. If you have been following me on Instagram for a while then you know I enjoy educating my followers about the various dishes and ingredients used within African foods. My cooking class is next week Wednesday October 14th. We will be cooking “Berbere Spiced Chicken Pasta”. A Manifest Kitchen original recipe! I thought it would be a great idea to provide you with context regarding the history and geographical information about the star spice used, BERBERE! Berbere is a traditional Ethiopian spice. It's a shame that I am just now being introduced to it (I need to do more research about my own continents foods smh). However, life is all about learning new things right?!

As a foodie and food blogger, I feel it is important to be knowledgeable about the cultural foods used. Especially if you are not a member of that culture. It gives the readers insight into the history and importance of the ingredients. It shows respect to the culture and its people. Being from West Africa, food is held to a high standard because so much revolves around it. Our food is so much more and tells a story!

In the name of authenticity, I interviewed a dear friend, Bethlehem, who is Ethiopian and introduced me to berbere. It is only right that she provides context about the very spice used in her culture. I hope you enjoy this!

What is Berbere?

Berbere is a combination of many spices. The main ingredients are chili peppers, coriander, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima (Ethiopian cardamom), rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek. Some variations have nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia use it as a staple ingredient when cooking. The pronunciation of the word is just as flavorful as the spice. It’s pronounced as “bear-ber-ay”. The first “r” is quickly rolled. Depending on which region of Ethiopia or Eritrea it is made in, the color ranges from light orange (not to be confused with mitmita) to a dark red.

What does it taste like?

It is spicy, hot, tangy, and brings warmth and a distinct aroma to dishes.

How is Berbere used?

It is used to make the wat (stew) spicy. When watching my mother cook and now when I cook with it, it’s added after the onions are sautéed and before the liquids (water, pureed tomato) are added. Berbere does burn easily and it is not pleasant to get the smoke in one’s eyes and lungs. You can add more while cooking for taste. It is also used to make a hot sauce to dip in which is composed of Berbere and either oil (usually olive oil) or niter kibbeh, which is Ethiopian/Eritrean clarified butter, or as many people might recognize it as “ghee”. However, our ghee is very seasoned and fragrant. The two staple ingredients in Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking is Berbere and niter kibbeh. I have also seen it used as a dry rub.

Other Common dishes and food that use berebere.

The general rule of thumb I tell people whenever we are at an Ethiopian restaurant - if the dish is red, it’s spicy and has Berbere. If it’s yellow (or also called Alicha Wat), it is mild in spice, but still full of flavor. The most popular dish, and Ethiopia’s national dish, that has Berbere is Doro Wat (chicken stew). Usually made with drumsticks and boiled eggs. The color of the dish is a deep, dark mahogany red. The sauce base is onions and tomatoes, the thickness depends on the cook. It is very time consuming to make. Another dish is Kai Sega Wat (red beef stew), the meat can be cow or lamb. The color is a more of a brownish color with a tinge of red. The sauce is generally thinner. Messir Wat (red lentil stew) is a stew composed of red (or yellow) lentils in an red-orange sauce. Shiro also has Berbere in it. It is chickpea grounded into powder form and is made into a stew with onions, garlic, ginger, Berbere, and tomatoes.

Restaurant: Goorsha

What is your favorite food that uses Berbere?

They’re all my favorite dishes! But the two my mom makes for me whenever I visit or when she visits is Doro wat and Messir wat. I’m sure everyone says this, but no one makes Doro wat and Messir wat like my mom. Hers is my favorite. Both dishes are very time consuming to make. My mother makes large batches of the wat base used to make Doro wot (depending on how much she makes, it can take a day or two) and then freezes it. She’ll give me the base so all I have to do is add the chicken and boiled egg. I’ve found a cheat code - defrost the wat, add the cleaned chicken and wat to a crock pot...then set it and forget it! You add the hard boiled egg at the very end. Sometimes, I’ll put the chicken in the oven before putting it in the crock pot, depending on how much time I have. Messir also takes time, due to the reduction process. The water is reduced 2-3 times when making the sauce.

What is a fond childhood memory you have relating to food?

A childhood memory particular to Berbere is me making the Berbere hot sauce as a kid. I would either make the sauce and eat alone with just injera or whatever bread we had in the kitchen (a warmed up baguette is the best with it). Thinking about it is making me want to make some right now.

Food: Genfo

Share something you want people to know about Ethiopian culture and food.

Ethiopian people are known for their beauty (eye roll). There’s a stereotypical “look” of an Ethiopian, however Ethiopia is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse countries in the world. It is dubbed the cradle of mankind. Ethiopians come in all different melanated skin tones and curl patterns. There are over 80 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture, dance, traditional clothing, physical features, food dishes, and stereotypes. On top of the different languages, there are also regional dialects. The most famous and recognizable dance is the Eskista, “dancing shoulders”, our shoulder shimmy. While many African dances involve the movement of legs and feet, this dance is primarily in the shoulders. It is a dance done by ethnic groups in the central and northern parts of the country, the larger ones being the Amhara and Tigrigna. The Amhara version is fast paced, while the Tigrigna version is slower and more static. The second recognizable dance is the “shoa Oromo”, known to the Oromo ethnic group. The dance is the twisting of the head and neck in fast and sharp movements to create the visual of whipping the hair back and forth. Ethiopians are humble and hard working. We are very generous and giving! Most do not like confrontation (lol). Christianity (the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) has had a strong presence in Ethiopia since the fourth century, AD. Ethiopia was missed during the early spread of Islam due to the foothold Christianity had. Many of the art, jewelry, and clothing has Christian significance, in particular the Coptic cross. Even though my parents do not believe in wearing jewelry due to the Christian denomination they practice, my parents still gave my sister and I necklaces in different variations of the Coptic cross. I have it in gold, but it can be found in both gold and silver.

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