Making Berbere and Melekesha, Two Traditional Ethiopian Spice Blends


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 “Making Berbere and Melekesha, Two Traditional Ethiopian Spice Blends”

Hot Sour Cherry Preserves and Cherry Liqueur

hot cherry preserves collage

This week in our CSA share, we received sour cherries. I was really excited about that – they only come once a year and the window to access them is very short. They are gorgeous – I think they are prettier than sweet cherries.

sour cherries
Sour cherries

They are smaller than sweet cherries and quite sour. I was amazed at the CSA pickup site when my friend’s son just started eating them like they were sweet cherries, apparently unaffected by the puckeryness of the cherries (I tasted one on its own – way sour). But this kid has an amazing palate at 2 years old, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at what he gladly eats!

Anyway, for most of us, these are not snacking cherries. They are meant to be preserved or made into pie. I wanted to preserve them, so I chose two ways to do that – hot cherry preserves, and cherry liqueur.

The sour cherry liqueur was very simple – I took a cup of pitted cherries and mixed it with 3/4 cup of organic sugar. I put that in a quart sized mason jar (it took up about half the jar) and added a combination of vodka and dark rum to that – the original recipe specified white rum, but I didn’t have any, so I used what was in my cupboard. We’ll see how it is in a couple of months. I can’t imagine it will be horrible or anything.

I’ll stir the mixture once a week or so. It’s in the back of a cupboard that doesn’t get opened regularly, so the store-it-in-the-dark thing is taken care of. The liqueur should be ready mid-September.

The Hot Cherry Preserves took a little more work, but not much. I mixed 12 oz of pitted sour cherries with 2/3 cup of organic sugar, a vanilla bean, and two guajillo chiles and let that macerate in the fridge overnight. The next day I heated it up to boiling and let that cook for 10 minutes. I added a tsp of organic lemon juice to it, and after it all cooled down a bit I put it in a half pint jar, and then in the fridge, where it will stay until I eat all the cherries. That really might not take very long, too.

I didn’t think a half pint jar would be big enough at first, but after the cherries cooked down, it made a scant half pint. They’ll sit in my fridge and I’ll use them in cocktails. Sour and spicy is one of my favorite flavor combinations. I may have to pick up more sour cherries this week (assuming they are still around) tomorrow and make more preserves!

Here’s to the awesomeness that is sour cherries!