Niter kibbeh, spiced Ethiopian butter, is not so much a sauce as a cooking medium, although it does make an intriguing simple sauce for pheasant, quail or white fish.
Niter kibbeh (NIT-r KEB-beh) is the aromatic, clarified butter we cooked with at the Eritrean restaurant Horn of Africa I worked at in Madison many years ago. We had a giant tub of it and would make it by the kilo every week or so.
Eritrea, in case you don’t know, is a country along the Red Sea that was once part of Ethiopia; its cooking is very similar. Exact recipes for Ethiopian standards don’t exist, so it’s like curry or a Bolognese sauce — every cook has his or her own recipe.
The recipe that follows is mine, but you can find other equally authentic ones.
Our niter kibbeh at the restaurant absolutely required four things (other than butter): minced shallots, toasted cardamom, fenugreek and turmeric. Oh, and one other thing — time. Slow cooking is essential to this concoction.
Other than it being indispensable in Ethiopian cooking, niter kibbeh adds a mysterious dimension to whatever you cook in it. I especially like to sear fish in it, or poach white meat poultry. A big spoonful dropped into a stew also adds a certain exotic touch.
Some classic recipes that use spiced butter:
- Alicha wot, a yellow, curry-like dish that isn’t overly spicy. Great with red meats like venison, lamb, beef, goat and such.
- Tibs, a sort of hybrid stir fry and stew that comes together quickly. You make this with tender meat like venison loin or sirloin steak,
- Butternut squash curry, a vegetarian curry made richer with niter kibbeh.
- Abish wot, a fenugreek-heavy stew very different from alicha wot, but also made with beef, lamb, goat or venison.
As a side, note, I have made niter kibbeh with both duck fat and lard as the medium, instead of butter, and it turned out really well. I imagine you could even make a vegan version by using coconut oil or vegetable oil, although I have not tried it.
Once made, spiced butter keeps for many months in the fridge, and it freezes well.
- 1 pound unsalted butter
- 2 minced shallots, about 1/4 cup
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
- 12 to 15 crushed cardamom pods
- 5 whole cloves
- 1 piece cinnamon stick, about an inch long
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
- Toast the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon in a dry pan over medium heat until they are aromatic, about a minute.
- Cut the butter into cubes.
- Toss everything into a heavy pot and turn the heat on low. Let this come to a bare simmer and cook gently for at least 30 minutes. We cooked ours at least an hour. It is vital that the milk solids do not burn. If they do, you have ruined the butter. Watch for browning, and when you see it, turn off the heat.
- Strain through cheesecloth and store in a clean glass jar. It’ll last 6 months in the fridge, at least a week on the counter, and forever in the freezer.