What Is Berbere? All About This Complex Spice Blend, Including Why You Should Be Using It in Your Own Cooking
Deep red-orange in color, this spice blend starts with chiles and includes some ingredients unique to East Africa.
Berbere and injera are the defining components of the cuisines of Eritrea and Ethiopia, close (and very fractious) East African neighbors. In the past, injera could be re-created easily on American soil, but the same couldn't be said for berbere, which had to be hidden in suitcases returning from Eritrea and snuck into restaurants in the United States as recently as just a few decades ago. That's because berbere could not then be sourced stateside, nor would all of its esoteric individual components have been available for creating an in-house blend. It contains some ingredients that were (are still are) exotic or unknown to most American palates.
Now, though, the world is super-connected, appetites have awakened, and berbere blends are at last available at the click of a mouse or from the supermarket shelf. Here's what you need to know about them, and, perhaps more importantly, why you should start cooking with the complex spice blends in your own kitchen.
What Is Berbere?
Like the distinctive flavor profiles of Middle Eastern and North African spice mixes such as baharat, za'atar, and ras el hanout, as well as Indian masalas, berbere blends have a consistent backbone of particular spices along with regional variations and riffs. That flavor backbone—and the intense redness and fire of berbere—belongs to chiles, species of Capsicum native to the Americas and now at home worldwide. East African mixes use Capsicum strains grown on African soil, and they toast them before grinding. Other standard commercial berbere ingredients include black pepper, coriander, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and sometimes allspice. In some ready-made mixes ginger, dried shallot, and dried garlic might also be included.
And then it gets interesting. What gives authentic, East African berbere its soul is a spice called long pepper; it is the fruit of Piper longum or Piper retrofractum—vines that are native to Eastern Asia and introduced to North and East Africa by Arab traders. Long pepper's flavor is distinct from black pepper's and is considered sweeter and much more aromatic. Imagine combining white pepper with mace, and you have its sensory semblance. Another authentic berbere component is korarima (also called Ethiopian cardamom), a staple East African spice that is the seed of Aframomum corririma. It is the eastern counterpart to the more familiar (and available) grains of paradise (A. meleguete), a West African spice. Both are members of the aromatic ginger family. And there is adjwain, or ajowan, seeds with thyme-ish properties, belonging to Trachyspermum ammi, a member of the parsley family.
Eritrean and Ethiopian berbere mixes would also include the leaves or seeds of rue (Ruta graveolens, belonging to the ultra-fragrant Rutaceae family), a strongly flavored herb—sweet, aromatic, and bitter—beloved by Romans but barely known in modern cooking. If you are a creative and curious cook, these more unusual ingredients are available online (and the rue is easy to grow), and can be added to excellent commercial berbere bases. McCormick launched its blend in 2018 in response to trending berbere interest. New York City's iconic spice house Kalustyan's has sold berbere for over a decade. Bulk organic berbere is also available online from Frontier Co-Op.
How Do You Use Berbere?
In Eritrea, melting stews called tsebhi—cooked with chicken, beef, or vegetables—feature the spice mix prominently. Slow-cooked wat is Ethiopia's counterpart. Berbere adapts well to any comforting casserole. It's also a mouth-watering rub for anything you may want to grill or roast: think dark fish like mackerel or bluefish, whole or spatchcocked chicken, meaty portobello mushrooms, or winter's root vegetables. Stir it into the creamy pan-sauce for thin spaghetti or linguine.
Stir berbere into strained Greek yogurt for a quick dip for raw vegetables or use that as a marinade for butterflied lamb or Berkshire pork chops. Add a teaspoon of berbere to your salad dressing. Toss lots of berbere with sliced potatoes or cauliflower florets in oil before oven-roasting. Warm it in melted or olive butter before drizzling over steamed vegetables. And stir berbere into the pan with a pile of blanched greens like chard or spinach. The heat and the fragrant warmth of these beautifully balanced aromatic spices is instant tonic and comfort.