Everything You Need to Know About Berbere
If you're looking to amp up the heat, you need this spice blend.
For Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking, berbere (pronounced “bare-bare-ee”) is the spice blend to have on deck—it’s one of the most distinctive flavors of the region. Whether you’re an Ethiopian food veteran, or you’re looking to try the spicy cuisine of this region for the first time, you’ll want to be well-acquainted with this vibrant crimson mix—it definitely deserves a permanent place in your spice rack.
Hot, peppery, and fragrant, this spice blend is especially great in soups and stews, but is versatile enough for just about anything. It can also be used as a dry rub for meat, in marinades, sprinkled on veggies, and to add heat to any dish that could use a little kick. Use it in couscous or quinoa. Add it to apple chips or dried fruit. Toss a couple pinches of berbere over a fresh salad for an unexpected (but delicious) touch of heat. Many households even keep some in a shaker at the table as a topping to use as needed.
Typical ingredients in berbere include ground garlic, red pepper, cardamom, coriander, and fenugreek, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion, but like most spice blends, there is a ton of variety in the spices and quantities included—you’ll likely notice a wide range of flavors in different brands and packages. Some blends include warm, sweeter spices like ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Nigella seeds, ajowan, and an Ethiopian native spice called korarima make frequent appearances in this fiery blend, as well. This wide variety of diverse spices come from millennia of global trade in the region, including with India and the Middle East.
Berbere is typically a hot mix, but the heat level depends on how much red pepper and chili the person making the blend chooses to use—go easy the first time you use it, and make sure to taste your food before you add more. We want to avoid singeing your taste buds at all costs.
Like garam masala, the spices are typically toasted before grinding the mix together, which means that it won’t stand up to high temperatures or long cooking times against direct heat. Add it towards the end of the cooking process to prevent your food from becoming too bitter or smoky. The spice blend can also be used as a paste—a little bit of oil, water, vinegar, or wine are instrumental in achieving the right consistency. That said, this paste would be a great option if you’re making a marinade or rub for meat.
If you’re ready to try your hand at cooking with berbere, you can snag a bottle of the spice online, at a well-stocked supermarket, or at a Middle Eastern or African grocer. If you’re looking for the freshest flavor, your best bet is to make your own at home—but you’ll have to splurge on a number of spices. This berbere recipe uses 13 spices that need to be toasted and ground, and it should be good to use for about six months. Once you have it hand, make a spicy lentil stew with your berbere, roll up some injera, and you’re good to go.