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
- Toast all the whole spices in a dry pan over medium heat until they are fragrant. Set them aside.
- 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.
- Grind your whole spices — and the red pepper flakes — in a spice grinder, then mix them with the powdered spices.
- In a mortar and pestle, add the shallot-garlic mixture and add the ginger. Pound it well for a minute or two.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Remember this stuff is ferocious. A little goes a long way.