Berbere, as the word is commonly used, is a fiery red Ethiopian spice mix that gives Ethiopian wots (stews) their characteristic flavour and, without which, a wot is just not a wot!
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Table of contents
Berbere is in fact, the general Ethiopian word for pepper, as in Kundo Pepper, which refers to black pepper. The word kundo doesn’t actually mean black, but I’ll be here all day if I started explaining that too!
Ok, ok, it means main. So the theory is that long before there was berbere or any other hot mixes, there was black pepper, and so it is the main pepper! Get it?
This is how the word is pronounced:
Ber – be – ray, with the emphasis being on the first syllable, sounding out the r.
Authentic Berbere Recipe?
As with any good spice mix, there are many, many versions and variations of this beautifully spicy mix, according to the cook and perhaps the cook’s mood! Seriously, don’t you sometimes do things differently because you’re feeling chirpy? Or not, as the case may be? I certainly “cut corners” when I’m not in a good mood – but shh, don’t tell anyone!
The most basic of berbere mixes will start out with dried chillies, garlic, ginger, Ethiopian cardamom and salt. On top of that, you can add any number of additional spices for a fuller flavour and aroma. So what I’m going to do, is give you the recipe for my mix. It has heat, warmth, depth, a slight tingle and an amazing fragrance. I tend to stick with this formula, only very occasionally, adding something extra.
I shall, however, suggest additional herbs spices that are traditionally used. If you get your hands on them, I encourage you to do so, for the true flavour. Then you can experiment to your heart’s delight when you feel like it. What I shall also do is give you the option of either
- Dry roasting your whole spices, then grinding them in a coffee/spice mill yourself, for an incredible depth and aroma. OR
- Buying all the spices ready ground and just mixing them all up, which will be a 5-minute job!
I tend to make it from scratch, preferring the fresher flavour and aroma, as I was taught in the Ethiopian restaurant I once cooked in. You can read a little of that in my Injera post. However, I do occasionally, go for the ready made chilli powder route, as it’s so much easier. I shall give you the instructions for both.
How to use Berbere
As mentioned above, it is the spice mix in so much of Ethiopian cooking, as well as the cooking of Eritrea and even Somalia. No self respecting Ethiopian home cook is going to be without this spice mix in his or her kitchen.
You can also use it in your other stew recipes, curries and rice dishes. And it is fantastic in salad dressings and as a topping on canapés, as well as on fruit and vegetable salads. And any chilli mix, like the Japanese Togarashi Shichimi, is going to be awesome mixed with mayo!
Sometimes, I love adding it to Chilli con Carne.
Korarima, Ethiopian Cardamom (image above) in Berbere
I had to start with this as, chances are, you won’t be able to get your hands on these little seeds. You can read more about them here, and where to get them online, if you are in the UK. In the US, if you don’t have an African shop nearby, do an online search, and I bet you will find a store or two that stocks them.
So, for today’s berbere recipe, if you can’t get korarima, use ordinary cardamom plus a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg, plus a twist of freshly ground black pepper.
Chilli Powder or Dried Chillies in Berbere
Clarification first: every single time I see an explanation for chilli powder written on an American website, it is described as chilli peppers mixed with other stuff. To most of the rest of the world, chilli powder, is just that – chilli peppers in powdered form, nothing else added. What Americans would call ground cayenne or cayenne powder.
To say that cayenne powder is hotter than chilli powder is just plain wrong, because it rather depends on what types of chilli were used to make that powder. For eg, I have dried scotch bonnets from last year’s harvest. If I were to ground them to a powder in my spice mill, that would be a seriously hot chilli powder, no? And that’s what we call it – chilli powder, whether in Asia where I grew up, or here in the UK, where I’ve been living for over 20 years.
So when I say chilli powder, that means powdered chilli peppers, plain and simple. Nothing added.
Berbere is a spicy mix, so whatever chillies you use, make sure that they have a bit of heat in them, how much heat, does depend on your tolerance level. You have to make your wots so you can eat them, right? So get a medium hot variety if you can’t stand too much heat in your food or go for a hot version if that rocks your boat.
To make your berbere completely from scratch, we need to seed our dried chillies, dry toast them on the stove, then grind them to a powder. Dry roasting them lends a touch of smokiness to the chillies and therefore, the chilli powder. If you are going down the store bought chilli powder route, which will not have that roasted flavour, I suggest adding smoked hot paprika to the mix, in a ratio pf 1:3, that is 1 Tbsp paprika to every 3 Tbsp of chilli powder. It’s unconventional, but it works so, so well; I was taught never to use paprika.
Allspice, Jamaican Pepper in Berbere
An essential ingredient in Caribbean and Middle Eastern cooking, allspice, as its name suggests, gives you the aroma of so many spices in one. I like to add some allspice berries in my berbere, because it lends touches of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to the mix. Click here to read more about it. If you can’t get allspice, just leave it out and play around with the other spices as mentioned in the recipe below.
Now, let’s take a look at how to make Berbere at home! And once we’ve mastered that, we shall move on to the most famous of Ethiopian recipes – Doro Wot, as you see below!
If you like the recipe, don’t forget to leave me a comment and that all important, 5-star rating! Thank you!
And if you make the recipe, share it on any platform and tag me @azlinbloor.
Berbere, Ethiopian Spice Mix
- measuring spoons
- spice mill
- small jar to store
- 20 dried red chillies non smoked variety, seeded, and broken into 2-3 pieces
- 2 African long pepper leave out if unavailable
- 10 black peppercorns
- ½ tsp korarima seeds or regular cardamom seeds
- ¼ tsp ajwain (bishop's weed seeds)
- 10 allspice berries
- 1 tsp passionfruit berries leave out if unavailable
- ½ tsp rue (herb of grace, Tena Adam in Ethiopian) (ruta graveolens) leave out if unavailable
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ¼ tsp ground turmeric
- 3 Tbsp hot chilli powder
- 1 Tbsp sweet paprika
- ½ tsp ground African long pepper
- ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- ½ tsp ground korarima seeds or regular cardamom seeds
- ⅛ tsp ground ajwain
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- ½ tsp ground passionfruit berries
- ¼ tsp ground rue (herb of grace, Tena Adam in Ethiopian)
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ¼ tsp ground turmeric
- dried holy basil
- onion powder
- Toast the dried red chillies in a small frying pan over medium heat for about 2-3 minutes, shaking the pan constantly, until you can smell them and they give off a spicy, smoky aroma. They will turn a darker colour, but don't let them burn. Set aside on a plate to cool.
- In the same frying pan, dry toast the rest of the whole spices, that is, the korarima (coriander) seeds, the coriander seeds, the peppercorns and the allspice berries. Shake the pan constantly, moving the spices and toast for 2-3 minutes until you are hit by a beautiful aroma. Leave to cool on a plate for 5 minutes.
- Place the chillies in a spice or coffee mill and grind to a smooth powder. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl.
- Next add all the whole spices into your mill and grind to a smooth powder. Add to the chilli powder.
- Now, add the ginger, garlic and turmeric to the spices in the bowl and mix thoroughly.
- Ta-da! You have yourself a make-from-scratch berbere spice mix! Transfer to a clean, dry jar and keep in your spice cupboard or pantry. Will be fine up to 3 months, but its potency will decrease over time, as with all spices.
- Mix everything together in a small jar and store in your spice cupboard, as above.