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Ethiopian Berbere Paste

This is the other essential to Ethiopian cooking, along with the clarified spiced butter known as niter kebbeh. Berbere (ber-BERRY) is basically the contents of your spice rack, mashed with cooked shallots and garlic and a little oil and water. What is an authentic recipe? Um, well, there isn’t one. Berbere is like masala or a Bolognese sauce — every cook has her own version.

What to use this with? Pheasant would be an ideal partner, to make a version of doro wat, a chicken stew considered the national dish of Ethiopia; remember Africa chickens tend to be old and tough — closer to a pheasant than an American chicken. Or you could use venison to make a version of segi wat, which is typically done with lamb.

My old boss, an Eritrean woman named Meselesh Ayele, said a bride’s ability to make berbere factored heavily in whether she’d be a good wife. Dunno if that’s still true, but I can tell you she never shared the exact berbere recipe she used at the restaurant. I know the spices, just not the proportions. Here’s what I came up with:

Makes about 1/2 cup

  • 2 minced shallots
  • 4 minced garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as peanut
  • Water (see below)
  • 12 cardamom pods
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seed
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek
  • 1 teaspoon allspice berries
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1/3 cup red pepper flakes
  1. Toast all the whole spices in a dry pan over medium heat until they are fragrant. Set them aside.
  2. In the same pan, heat the oil and sweat the shallots and garlic over medium heat. Do not let them color. Turn off the heat and set aside.
  3. Grind your whole spices — and the red pepper flakes — in a spice grinder, then mix them with the powdered spices.
  4. In a mortar and pestle, add the shallot-garlic mixture and add the ginger. Pound it well for a minute or two.
  5. Start adding the spice mixture, pounding and mixing all the way, until you have a clay-like, brick red mix. You now have berbere in its most preservable form. In the fridge, I’ve kept this for a year with nothing noticeable happening to it.
  6. But, this is tough to use. So if you want your berbere now, start adding some water, a tablespoon at a time, to thin it out to the consistency you want.
  7. If you don’t have or don’t feel like making berbere the old-fashioned way, you can put the wet ingredients in a food processor, add the spices and then drizzle in water or oil as you buzz it on low.
  8. Remember this stuff is ferocious. A little goes a long way.

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One response to “Ethiopian Berbere Paste”

  1. Ethiopian Food » iRiver Rat

    […] -Berbere Paste (a red pepper spice blend, ok really it is a kitchen sink spice blend) […]

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