Berbere Spice Blend Uncovered
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Berbere is a traditional spice blend that is the foundation of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. The name itself means ‘pepper’ or ‘hot’ in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia.
It’s a pungent and powerful blend of spices and although it’s a spicy chilli blend, it isn’t bursting with heat as it also has sweet and citrusy flavours. The spice blend varies in ingredients from kitchen to kitchen, but the most common spices in the blend impart warmth, earthiness, sweetness and spiciness to dishes. The key ingredients used include:
Around 2,000 years ago, the Aksum kingdom included modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia. It bordered the Red Sea, which was important to the Aksumites. They controlled the Red Sea route to the Silk Road, and because of their knowledge of the monsoon winds, they sent ships off towards India in the summer, which would return in the winter. This link with the Silk Road meant that the Aksumites had access to spices from the Far East, like cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.
These exotic spices made their way to local markets, where people would gradually experiment with different dishes and households would develop their own spice blends which they passed down to next generations.
Traditionally, berbere is cooked together with oil and onions at the beginning of stews and braises such as doro wat (chicken stew), which is Ethiopia’s national dish. It’s a flavour-packed dish of chicken, onions, garlic and tomatoes which is slow-cooked for hours until tender.
Berbere also works well with meat and seafood, either as a dry rub, mixed with oil or water to create a paste, or added into meatballs. With grilled meat or seafood, sprinkle a little of the spice mix right before serving for extra hot and citrusy notes.
Berbere makes a welcome appearance in vegetarian dishes as well. Try making shiro wat, a delicious Ethiopian stew made from ground dried chickpeas mixed with garlic and onions. You can also add the blend to vegetable curries, sauteed mushrooms and green beans, or to top salads.
The spice blend is great in dips and sauces – simply whisk the spice blend into yoghurt or sour cream. Berbere is the main component in awaze, a popular Ethiopian condiment used as a dip, which is made from the spice blend mixed with wine and garlic. Add the blend to tomato paste, honey and salt for a unique take on barbecue sauce.
Keen to try it out? You can find berbere spice blend on our website here. Here are some great recipes which use the spice: