What is Berbere?
Berbere is a spice with its roots in Ethiopia and prevalent in Eritrea and other countries in the Horn of Africa. This spice blend is an essential ingredient in many traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines. In Amharic, one of Ethiopia's national languages, 'barbare' is the word for 'hot' or 'pepper', which is a clue to the dominant flavor profile for this blend that traditional consists of chili peppers, cumin, garlic, coriander, korarima, rue, nigella, and fenugreek. There is no single standard recipe for berbere, although it typically tastes peppery, spicy, and citrusy.
Berbere is pronounced "burr-burr-e" with an accent on the first syllable and the "e" as used in 'egg'.
History of Berbere
The Ethiopian roots of berbere go deep into its history. Today we know Ethiopia as a land-locked country. Two thousand years ago, it was part of the Aksum kingdom, which included parts of modern day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia. More importantly, it bordered the Red Sea. The Aksumites used the monsoon winds to trade with China via the Silk Road. Among the goods they returned were the Far East's spices - black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, clove, and turmeric. Some authorities argue for a much later introduction of the chilies used in berbere via traders in the late 16th century. We like the Aksum version better, more steeped in mystery.
As these imported spices made their way into local markets, households experimented and developed their mixes. Like many cooks today, Aksumite households perfected and guarded the blends handed down to the succeeding generations. The result is a spice blend that differs from region to region, even from household to household.
How to Use Berbere
Often described as hot and spicy, berbere can be substituted in recipes calling for chili powder since it adds earthy, aromatic, and slightly sweet flavoring. Although its origins are North African, the spice works well in Italian and Mexican recipes that require some "heat."
That same "heat" makes berbere an excellent addition to any stew. An iconic example is doro wat; a stew considered the national dish of Ethiopia. The recipe also adds olive oil, red onions, garlic cloves, meat (chicken, beef, or lamb), salt, and finishes with hard-boiled eggs. In Eritrea, a stew called Zigni—cooked with beef—features the spice mix prominently.
Berbere is also a mouth-watering rub for anything you may want to grill or roast: lamb, chicken, salmon, or mackerel. In an air fryer, coat sliced or chopped potatoes with olive oil and berbere. You will never think of potatoes as boring again. This recipe also works well with almost any root vegetable.
Stir berbere into yogurt for a quick dip for raw vegetables. Add a teaspoon of berbere to your corn for easy elotes. Toss lots of berbere with diced potatoes or cauliflower heads in before oven-roasting. Warm it in melted or olive butter before drizzling over steamed vegetables. For a twist, berbere can pair with rich, dark chocolate for dessert as well. The heat and the fragrant warmth of this beautifully balanced aromatic spice is instant tonic and comfort.
Berbere Compared to Other Regional Blends
Mitmita, another blend popular in Ethiopia, is orange-red and contains bird's eye chili peppers, Ethiopian cardamom (korerima), cloves, and salt. It occasionally has other spices, including cinnamon, cumin, and ginger Mitmita, is lighter in color but much fierier than berbere.
Peri-peri Sauce was created from the peri-peri chili peppers introduced by the Portuguese. Today it flourishes in sub-Saharan Africa especially in Mozambique, South Africa, Angola, and Namibia. Key ingredients are chili and garlic with an oily or acidic base. Other common ingredients are salt, whisky, citrus peel, onion, pepper, bay leaves, paprika, pimiento, basil, oregano, and tarragon. On the Scoville Scale peri peri is ranked "very hot," much hotter than berbere. A typical recipe, on which there are many variations, might include:
- 4 chili peppers, cleaned and finely chopped
- juice of one lemon
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley, (optional)
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
Baharat is a Middle Eastern all-purpose blend consisting of eight or more spices. Rumi Baharat blends black pepper, cardamom, cloves, Rumi Black Cumin, cinnamon (cassia), nutmeg, coriander, and paprika. Baharat creates a balance of flavors less spicy than berbere while providing a more mild heat that enlivens any dish.
How to Make Your Own Berbere
With a well-stocked spice cabinet, you can develop your own berbere recipe. Since it is a blend, you can have fun altering the mixture to suit your taste. Reduce the heat by using less chili powder.
On the One Green Planet website, Kat Smith offers the following recipe. 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.
This recipe excludes fenugreek, common in many blends but not typically found in your spice cabinet. Our Rumi Berbere blend includes fenugreek and Rumi black cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne, Urfa chile, coriander, cardamom, mace, fenugreek, cassia, and ginger.
Now that you know more about this wonderful spice blend steeped in the history of Ethiopia, check out our own version and delicious recipes. If you have any questions or stories of your own experiences with Berbere, please let share with the community in the comments below.