What Is Berbere, How to Make Your Own, And A Run-down on Ethiopian Cuisine
A friend of mine who is an athlete is currently training in Ethiopia. I asked him if he could bring back some berbere for me and he sent a text reassuring me that:
“I have acquired for you 1.5kg of the stuff. I have tried it on my tibs (goat) and it certainly is potent!”
“It smells great – should go well on a nice steak.”
Why did I want berbere? In the post I put up in January on food and drink trends for 2016 I mentioned berbere as a spice mix which was likely to become fashionable. So, obviously, I needed to try some…
What to do with it? My friend said the flavour of his ‘tibs’ was sometimes a bit in-your-face. Berbere is a helpful solution to this problem. So it can be used as a rub for strong tasting meat. But it’s also good with milder flavoured chicken or turkey which will ‘carry’ the flavours.
What is berbere made of?
Berbere is a spice mix from Ethiopia which typically includes garlic, ginger, the bitter leaves and berries of rue, basil, nigella seeds, fenugreek…. and, the main source of its potency, chilli.
Authentic berbere will also include korerima (sometimes spelt Korarima) otherwise known as Ethiopian ‘false’ cardamom, which grows wild in Ethiopia and is used in another local spice blend, Mitmita. Korerima is nothing like the better known types of cardamom (although the black Indian type is more like it than the green type), and the plant is, in fact, a species of ginger.
Berbere may also contain ajwain (a herb which produces seeds which smell a bit like thyme) and radhuni (often substituted for celery seeds).
How to make berbere
If you don’t happen to have a friend training in Ethiopia you can have a go at making it yourself. Although Ethiopian food is probably the hottest in Africa, you can make your berbere as spicy or mild as suits you…. and in my case I prefer to go milder. Some recipes include cayenne and I’ve excluded that and gone very easy indeed on the chilli.
You’ll need a spice or coffee grinder, or a pestle and mortar and a lot of muscle power!
Homemade berbere will keep in an airtight container for about three months.
To make nearly half a cup of berbere:
- 1½ tsp garlic powder
- 1½ tsp ground ginger
- 1 tbsp bitter-sweet paprika
- 1 tbsp nigella seeds
- 1 tsp fenugreek
- ½ tsp dried chilli flakes – if you want a hotter berbere you can double this and add a tsp of cayenne as well. In fact my friend got me two types to try – hot and hotter
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp black Indian cardamom seeds
- ½ tsp thyme
- 4 cloves
- 1 tbsp celery seeds
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- 10 black peppercorns
- 6 allspice berries
- 1 tbsp salt
- cinnamon and nutmeg are optional
- Dry fry the lot.
- Grind to a powder.
- Store in a jar with an air tight lid, in a dark place for some three months.
What to do with berbere
In addition to masking the taste of rather strong meat, berbere is also good with eggs – either shakshuka, or on straightforward scrambled eggs, or, incredibly, over chopped strawberries!
A few basics about Ethiopian food in general
Two main ingredients
Berbere is one of two essential and typical ingredients of Ethiopian food, the other being Niter Kibbeh – a kind of clarified butter containing many of the same spices as those you’ll find in berbere. On special occasions this butter is used to cook a tender raw beef called kitfo, which is served with green beans and soft cheese.
Stews, spicy and mild
These are used to make slow-simmered meat dishes (a lot of goat as my friend commented but also beef and lamb… pork is forbidden) and vegetable and lentil stews. Alichas are mild stews while Wats (sometimes spelt Wot or W’et) contain berbere. Doro wat is chicken coated in berbere and simmered.
Christian Orthodox beliefs restrict the consumption of meat and dairy on Wednesdays and Fridays there could be dishes of chickpeas and lentils tossed with onions, garlic, and turmeric.
The stews are eaten with Injera bread, a flat bread traditionally made out of teff flour – a bit like a slightly spongy crèpe finished with lemon juice. It replaces plates, and is great for soaking up the juices from a stew.
What is teff? Teff is an ancient grain about the size of a poppy seed – the world’s smallest grain. It has a mild, nutty flavour, and is gluten-free and high in protein and calcium. It has three times more iron and twice as much fibre as rice.
You can buy teff flour at Dove’s Farm. Teff flour is not just used for injera bread – it’s also good in muffins and brownies – there are loads of recipes on the Dove’s Farm site.
Sometimes the stew may be drained and used to fill wraps made of Kita – an unleavened flat bread.
At the end of a meal frankincense is often burned – lovely idea.
Where to try Ethiopian food in London
Go to Ethiopian Flavours in Borough Market.