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 Berbere spice blend that differs from region to region, even from household to household.