Berbere spice mix is essential to Ethiopian cooking, along with the clarified spiced butter known as niter kebbeh. Berbere (ber-BERRY) is to Ethiopia what garam masala is to India. This is my berbere recipe.
I learned this berbere recipe decades ago, while working as a sous chef at The Horn of Africa, an Ethiopian restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin.
Berbere, either as a spice mix or a paste is, more or less, the contents of your spice rack. I’m only half joking.
If you want berbere paste, you mash the spice mix with cooked shallots and garlic and a little oil and water. Both are commonly found.
What is an authentic recipe? Um, well, there isn’t just one. Berbere is like masala or a Bolognese sauce — every cook has her own version.
I learned this berbere recipe many years ago from my boss Meselesh Ayele, who owned The Horn of Africa. Knowing nothing about the cuisine — I was studying African history at the University of Wisconsin — working there was an amazing experience that helped set me on the path I am on to this day.
Berbere makes its way into most Ethiopian recipes, notably abish wot, which I make as an Ethiopian venison stew, doro wot, a chicken dish, and my all time favorite, tibs. All are classic dishes from that country. It also shows up in their version of butternut squash curry.
In fact, doro wot, a spicy chicken stew, is considered the national dish of Ethiopia. For hunters you’re in luck; remember African chickens tend to be old and tough — so a pheasant or grouse would be a far better choice than a typical American chicken. If you are not a hunter, try to find a stewing hen, or at least a roasting hen.
Or you could use venison to make a version of sega wat, which is typically done with lamb.
Meselesh told me that a bride’s berbere recipe 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:
Ethiopian Berbere Paste
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 12 whole cloves
- 12 cardamom pods
- 2 large shallots, minced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as peanut
- 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 3 tablespoons cayenne
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek
- Water (see below)
- 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 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 to use 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 want to make 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.