Making Berbere and Melekesha, Two Traditional Ethiopian Spice Blends

by Meg Cotner on November 10, 2014

above-pile-of-berbere-ethiopian-cuisine

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. 

whole-spices-berbere-ethiopian-cuisine

Clockwise from top: nigella, ajwain, coriander, fenugreek, chiles, allspice.

Two other spices that are a little unfamiliar to me are ajwain and nigella. Ajwain smells like thyme but tastes like anise and oregano and is used in South and Central Asian cooking. Nigella is also used in Central and South Asia as well as the greater Middle East, and has a flavor of toasted onions. Its oil apparently has high levels of CLA.

powdered-spices-berbere-ethiopian-cuisine

Paprikas, dried ginger, and onion flakes.

As I did my research, I found that the Marcus Samuelsson mix was reproduced quite a bit around the internet, and it includes a lot of familiar ingredients so that could be part of its virality. It also indicates that you should remove the seeds from the chiles, which in turn will remove quite a bit of the heat (any of the ribs included will make things spicier), which seems to go against the core concept of berbere, which is that it’s hot. Even with the spicy paprika, if you want things spicy, I would recommend keeping in at least some of the seeds (there will be plenty—it’s amazing how many seeds each of these small peppers has).

melekesha-spice-ingredients-ethiopian-cuisine

Clockwise from top: cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, cloves.

During my research I came across another spice blend called melekesha, which is a sort of finishing spice blend—you add it at the end of the cooking process. According to Karl at Jabberwocky Stew, “if you add the “finishing” spices at the beginning of the cooking, the heat destroys all of the volatile elements in them that give the dish that special aroma.” I agree with him that most berbere recipes on the internet are combining berbere and melekesha; I plan to keep them separate.

With both mixes I sifted them through a fine mesh sieve—possibly due to the quality of my spice grinder. I really like having a fine, uniform spice blend. I noticed my berbere was not as red as some I’ve seen on the internet, which is a little disappointing, but what really matters is how it tastes in use. Perhaps it will need some tweaking, just not sure yet.

I’ll be giving this berbere a try with Yemesir Wot this coming week.

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Berbere

3 tbs sweet paprika
1/2 tsp hot paprika
1 tsp fenugreek
1 tsp dried ginger
1 tsp nigella
1 tsp ajwain
1 tsp coriander seeds
5 dried chiles de árbol, stemmed and crumbled
1/4 cup dried onion flakes
1/4 tsp allspice berries

  1. Toast the fenugreek, nigella, ajwain, coriander, and allspice in a pan over medium heat for about 4 minutes.
  2. Allow to cool and then grind in a spice grinder, then with onion flakes and chiles until smooth.
  3. Combine with ginger and paprikas. Stores in an airtight container for 6 months.

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Melekesha
Ingredients and proportions by Karl Lueck

1 tsp. black peppercorns
1/2 tsp. cardamom pods
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg, fresh grated

  1. Toast cardamom, cumin, peppercorn, and cloves for a few minutes over medium heat.
  2. Combine with other ingredients in a spice grinder and process until smooth.
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