I’ve mentioned it before—both here and various other places over the years—that Ethiopian food is one of my favorite cuisines. I first tasted it when I lived in Berkeley, and fell in love immediately, in particular with the spiced red lentil dish called Yemesir Wot, also known as Mesir Wot. My first tastes were during my vegetarian years, and this dish was heaven for me.
I learned that one of the ways Ethiopian food tastes like it does is the use of berbere, a traditional spice blend made with a dozen or so spices, including chiles, ginger, and fenugreek, among others. The word berbere means “hot” in Amharic—and it is quite spicy, but so flavorful. You can buy it pre-made but I’ve decided to make it from scratch, combining the spices myself.
Starting out on this project, I thought berbere was an exact mix of spices, but in hindsight, I realize that was a bit naive. It certainly does vary, and I imagine so from town to town, kitchen to kitchen. There are recipes out there with more exotic (to this Westerner) ingredients like rue, which is bitter and apparently contributes to “gastric distress” but must be in there for some reason. I evaluated the following mixes:
- Marcus Samuelsson—coriander, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, allspice, white cardamom pods, cloves, dried onion flakes, dried chiles de árbol, paprika, kosher salt, nutmeg, ground ginger, cinnamon.
- Karl Lueck (Jabberwocky Stew)—Sweet Hungarian paprika, Spanish paprika, Indian chili power, ajwain, dried basil, cardamom seeds, fenugreek, dried ginger, nigella.
- Celtnet—cumin seeds, cloves, Ethiopian cardamom (Aframomum corrorima) seeds (or black cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, allspice berries, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, piri-piri chillies, dried ginger, turmeric, sea salt, paprika, cinnamon, thyme leaves
There’s also the Wikipedia description of berbere that includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, dried basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek.
The big constant among the recipes is fenugreek, a spice I really have never used before. It has both sweet and bitter elements to it and I understand it plays well with other spices. Ginger and chiles of some sort are also constants in most berbere recipes. Continue reading…