Ethiopian Spice Blend
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Berbere is a complex, chili-pepper-based spice mix that forms one of the pillars of Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking. Because individual recipes vary a great deal, and because some ingredients can be harder to come by than others, it can be difficult to find an English language recipe that accurately captures the wonderful character of this amazing spice blend.
Here, we break down the various components of berbere in detail, including English and Amharic names, availability, and substitutions.
Berbere is a distinctive, highly flavourful spice blend that's absolutely essential to the world of Ethiopian cooking. It's also, frankly, pretty poorly explained and understood in a lot of English-language articles and recipes.
I developed this recipe for two key reasons. The first of these reasons was the fact that I wanted my own DIY berbere recipe, catered to my own preferences and tastes. The second (and more important) reason was that I wanted to be able to provide an English language guide that breaks down what berbere is and isn't, thereby allowing more English-speaking home cooks to explore, understand, and experiment with Ethiopian cooking on their own.
If you want to understand berbere or Ethiopian food better, I'd encourage you to check out the award-winning cookbook Ethiopia: Recipes and traditions from the horn of Africa by Yohanis Gebreyesus
What Is Berbere?
At the most basic level, berbere is a chili pepper centric spice blend from the Horn of Africa, most commonly associated with Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, it's worth noting that berbere is frequently used in much larger quantities than many spice mixes. Western cooks used to adding a tablespoon or two of a spice mix to a recipe are often surprised to see recipes calling for half a cup (or more!) of berbere. There are recipes that use less berbere of course, but as a general rule this spice blend serves a very important, even foundational role in a lot of Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking. Because of this, it's worth understanding what goes into making really good berbere.
Wet vs. Dry Berbere
This recipe uses a combination of dried ingredients, toasted and ground to make a finished berbere. This method can yield great berbere, but it's technically a shortcut. Traditionally, berbere would be made in two distinct stages, starting with a series of 'wet' steps, and ending with dry mixing steps that more closely resemble what you'll find in this recipe.
In order to understand how to construct a good shortcut berbere, it's important to understand what you're missing out on by simplifying the process. The dry steps are pretty typical for a spice blend: toast, combine, and grind the ingredients to make a powder. But the wet steps are rather different. During the wet stage, ginger, garlic, and a selection of herbs are pounded together before being mixed with crushed, dried chilies. This is then thoroughly mixed and pounded to produce delez berbere (ድልዝ በርበሬ) - the inititial 'wet' berbere. This paste will have a few more ingredients added before being flattened and set aside to age for a few days, then thoroughly dried. At this point, berbere making enters the final 'dry' stage. Various spices are toasted and combined with the dried delez berbere, creating the finished product.
Because one-day 'shortcut' berbere recipes lack a wet/delez step, we need to make up for some of the missing flavours in other ways. Most recipes include dried ginger, but I've found that many fail to account for the missing garlic and onion. I use garlic and onion powder here, but if you're feeling a bit more adventurous you can also dry-roast fresh onion and garlic and use these instead (more on this in the Recipe Notes section and the recipe card itself). Rosemary is also added to this recipe to help fill in for the missing wet stage - though the reason behind this is a little more complicated. Traditional berbere recipes don't often call for rosemary - but it makes an excellent substitute for some of the herbs that are otherwise tricky to find outside of Ethiopia. I found that many Amharic-language berbere recipes on YouTube used rosemary alongside garlic and onions in order to create a delez (or oven-baked 'semi-wet' delez) step. I figured it was worth trying to incorporate this into a one-stage spice blend like this one. I was quite pleased with the aromatic character of my finished berbere, and I think the rosemary makes a subtle-but-worthwhile difference.
How Spicy Should Berbere Be?
There's a common misconception that berbere has to been intensely spicy. Berbere is generally spicy, yes, but it's not meant to deliver a face-melting blast of capsaicin. There's actually a separate Ethiopian spice blend called mitmita that's generally reserved for making the really fiery dishes.
Generally speaking, berbere should be noticeably spicy, but not so hot that you struggle to get through a recipe that uses a lot of it (e.g. doro wot). It's worth remembering that you're often going to end up using quite a lot of berbere in a recipe, so trying to amp up the spice level (e.g. by using cayenne pepper) can leave even experienced spice aficionados sweating uncomfortably. I prefer to err on the conservative side, aiming for a medium/hot level. You can always add mitmita or a hot chili powder to your cooking if you want to make a dish spicier, but you can't walk it back.
Now, what if you want to make Ethiopian food, but you've got a low tolerance for spiciness? Well, let's get a little sacrilegious: you can make berbere with very little heat. In theory, you could probably even make it without any heat at all. There are wonderful dried red chilies with very low spice levels, including many with really wonderful flavours. Kashmiri chilies are (generally) only mildly spicy, and they make great berbere. You could even use a very good quality sweet paprika in place of the chilies to create a complex, yet decidedly un-spicy berbere. You do you.
Check out the Recipe Notes below - and specifically the section on chili peppers - for tips on what kinds of chilies you can use to adjust the heat levels to your own personal tastes.
What If I Can't Find All The Ingredients?
There's good news and there's bad news when it comes to the ingredients in berbere. The bad news is that some of them are pretty tricky to find unless you have access to well-stocked Ethiopian markets. The good news is that there are quite a few fairly common spices that can substitute for some of the harder-to-find ingredients.
Having said this, I will encourage you to try to source as many of the ingredients as you can, and to use the best quality ingredients that you can get your hands on. If you do have an Ethiopian/Eritrean grocery store in town, check it out, and buy a few spices that might be new to you.
I won't get into the details about variations, substitutions, and omissions here. For that, I encourage you to check out the Recipe Notes section below, which breaks down each of the ingredients I use, where to find them, and how to substitute for them (when possible).
There isn't one right way to make berbere. You can play with the individual spices, changing the balance of flavours and adding or omitting ingredients to suit your personal preferences. No two berbere recipes are the same, so don't feel like you're out of luck if you have to make changes along the way.
From a technique perspective, there's not a whole lot to worry about when making berbere in this fashion. All you'll really need to do is toast a few spices and grind/mix things together.
It is important to have something that can do a good job of grinding the spices thoroughly. I start with a high-speed blender (a food processor works nicely too), then transfer the mixture in batches to a smaller spice grinder. This two step process gives me a nice, fine powder. It's also handy to have a small sifter to run the finished powder through, as there are always a few little hulls or husks that don't want to break down.
If grinding whole spices is going to be difficult for you, you can start with ground (powdered) ingredients. Just be sure to get the freshest and most flavourful ingredients that you can.
Speaking of ingredients... let's get to the most important notes! Below you'll find an extensive section detailing the different spices I use to make berbere, along with notes about where to find them, how to substitute for them, and (in some cases) if they can be omitted. I always encourage experimentation and personalization with the recipes I develop, and these notes should go a long way towards helping you zero in on exactly the kind of berbere you're trying to develop.
The image above shows the 17 ingredients I use to make this berbere recipe. These are listed below in numerical order. Click an ingredient to open the accordion with more information about options, substitutions, etc. I've also included the Amharic names (including Romanized versions).
Note that these ingredients are not in any particular order - I just needed to fit them on the plate for the photo. Some ingredients are optional, and these are noted below and in the recipe card itself.
Don't be intimidated by the quantity of spices, or by some of the less familiar ingredients; berbere can be made with a wide variety of modifications, substitutions, and omissions.
There are additional ingredients that I don't use that appear in some berbere recipes. Some of these are mentioned at the end of this section.
Berbere is very personal, and there are countless recipe variations out there. Here are a few additional ingredients that you might encounter in other berbere recipes.
Salt (ጨው) - Many berbere recipes will add salt. Adding salt to berbere makes it easy to toss into a recipe as a one-and-done spice mix, similar to Mexican chili powder. I personally don't like to do this, because it makes it harder to adjust the salt levels of the recipes that I'm going to make with berbere, and because the amount of berbere used in any given recipe can vary quite a bit.
Turmeric (እርድ) - This bright yellow spice, generally sold as a powder, is found in quite a few berbere recipes. It has an earthy, somewhat bitter flavour that works well with many spices. I personally feel it's a bit redundant, and I prefer not to add too much yellow colour to my berbere. If you want to add turmeric, I wouldn't add more than 1 tsp.
Rue (ጤና አዳም - T'ēna Adami) - This flowering herb in the genus Ruta is actually very common in Amharic-language berbere recipes, but tends to be extremely difficult to find in stores. The seeds, flowers, and leaves are variously used in different recipes; Ethiopian coffee preparations often make notable use of it. Rue adds a rather bitter, citrusy, and mildly herbal character to dishes. If you do have access to rue seeds, be aware that a little bit goes a very long way.
Making Berbere Paste
Once you've made berbere, there are a number of ways you can use it. It can be used as a rub, added to a marinade, combined with other ingredients (e.g. to make awaze) or used in slow cooked and simmered recipes. But one of the best ways to use berbere is to make it into a handy paste called deleh berbere (የድልህ በርበሬ - yedilihi beriberē).
Deleh berbere mellows and balances the flavour of berbere, making it easier to use, especially in dishes with shorter cooking times. It also makes berbere easier to use, both as a marinade and as a spice paste.
As with berbere itself, there are plenty of personal variations for deleh berbere. The basic idea is pretty simple however: combine dry berbere powder with oil, water, and (in some cases) additional spices or herbs in order to create a homogeneous and easy-to-use paste.
I'll be honest with you - deleh berbere could easily be another recipe and article (and perhaps I'll write one in the future). There are just so many different options when it comes to what ingredients to add! Some recipes, like the one found in the aforementioned Ethiopia cookbook by Yohanis Gebreyesus, add only water flavoured with fenugreek and oil. Others add more ginger, garlic, herbs, tej (honey wine), and spices. Ultimately, I would suggest starting with a simple deleh berbere recipe and seeing if it suits your tastes. From there, and depending on the dishes you intend to make, you might want to modify your recipe by adding other flavours to the mix.
Here's my basic deleh berbere recipe. Note that it can be scaled up easily:
Deleh Berbere (Berbere Paste)
1/4 cup berbere (30 grams)
1 clove garlic
1 tsp minced ginger
approx. 2 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp vegetable oil or olive oil
Finely mince the garlic and ginger and add it to the berbere along with the oil. Bring the water to a boil, then set aside. Add the boiled water to the mixture until the desired consistency is achieved. You want your deleh berbere to be fairly thick (see the image below for reference). Store the mixture in a clean (ideally sterilized) jar. Pour a little extra oil over the top of the mixture to help preserve it.
Your deleh berbere will keep in the fridge for several months - especially if you've worked in a fairly sterile fashion. If you're planning to use all your deleh berbere with a few days, you can skip boiling the water and adding the extra oil on top.
In order to understand what goes into a more complex deleh berbere recipe, I highly recommend checking out this wonderful video from Adane - Ethiopian Food. Be sure to turn on the English subtitles (unless you speak Amharic, of course). Note that this video combines dry berbere making and the deleh step, so a lot of extra herbs and spices are being added. If you've already made a dry berbere, you'd skip many of these components.
As a general rule, spices contribute a lot of flavour without a big impact on the nutritional profile of a dish. Berbere has next to nothing in the way of fat or calories, and is generally low in most vitamins - with the notable exception of Vitamin A. Chili peppers are loaded with Vitamin A, and consequently, so is berbere!
Nothing really - berbere is healthy stuff.
Ingredient & Pantry Pages
Berbere (Ethiopian Spice Mixture) - Simplified Version (Dry Ingredients Only)
- high speed blender (optional)
- spice grinder
- 50 g dried chilies (see note on varieties)
- 3 Tbsp red pepper powder or paprika (see note)
- 1 tsp dried ginger
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 1 tsp black pepper or long pepper
- 1 tsp dried rosemary
- 1/2 tsp ajwain (optional)
- 1/2 tsp korarima or green cardamom (see note)
- 1/2 tsp nigella (optional)
- 1/2 tsp holy basil (beso bela) (optional - see note)
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 2-3 allspice berries
- 4 cloves
- Sift through any whole spices to make sure there are no stones, stems, etc.
- If you're using whole chilies, remove the stems. You can also remove the seeds if you wish to reduce the spice level. If you do, you may wish to add a little extra chili pepper to make up for the lost volume of seeds.
Making the Berbere
- Warm a dry skillet over medium heat. Add the whole chilies and toast for 30-45 seconds, or until pliable and fragrant. Remove and set aside.
- Add the whole spices to the pan and toast, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute or until similarly fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.(Note: ground spices can be toasted, but are much more likely to burn, and are generally harder to get out of the pan. If you choose to toast these, do so carefully.)
- Combine the chilies and all of the spices in a high speed blender or food processor. Blend at high speed until the mixture has broken down as much as possible.
- Transfer about 1/4 of the mixture to a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder. Grind until a fine powder is produced. Set aside and repeat with remaining portions.
- (Optional) Sift the berbere with a strainer to catch any lingering hard bits of husks or seeds.
- Store your finished berbere in an airtight container. It will last for 3-4 months before starting to lose flavour - longer if refrigerated.
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From what I know, berbere is not meant to be crazy spicy… it’s more of a warming heat with grounding spices. There’s so many flavours at play and when you use fresh spices, this mix is absolutely stunning. Looking forward to the Niter Kibbeh post coming out… I’ve made my own before and thoroughly enjoyed cooking with it. The aromas of Ethiopian cooking are so unique and mouthwatering!
‘face-melting blast of capsaicin’, haha! I mean, I love your sense of humour and your love for details, Sean! This is a lovely clean explanation of this mix of spices I didn’t even know existed! I tried Ethiopian once and loved it, but I never thought I could reproduce it until today! Great research!
wow thanks for this informative post on ethiopian spices. I haven’t tried this specific chili-pepper-based spice mix but i’m thinking i will need to soon – it sounds really flavourful.