ORIGINS: Following the introduction of chilis from the Americas to East Africa, berbere spice has become a fundamental component of Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking.
Traditional Berbere Spice Blend (በርበሬ)
- 5 dried red chili peppers 5 g
- 2 tbsp smoked paprika 15 g; see Note 1
- 1 tbsp paprika 7 g; see Note 1
- 1 tbsp ground dry ginger 6 g
- 1 tbsp fenugreek seeds 7 g
- 5 korarima pods or 2 tsp powder 3 g; can sub black cardamom
- 2 timiz 4 g; can sub 2 tsp black pepper
- 7 whole cloves
- 2 allspice berries
- 1 tsp coriander seeds 1 g
- 1 tsp garlic powder 3 g
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds 1 g
- 1/2 tsp nigella seeds 1 g
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 1 g
- 1/2 whole nutmeg 1 g
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp mace
- Optional: Toast the whole spices in a dry saucepan on low heat for a couple of minutes.
- Add all the ingredients to a spice grinder or high-speed blender and blend until finely ground.
- If you would like a hotter berbere, swap out the paprika with more dried chili pepper.
- The ingredients are listed in order of importance. If you don’t have some of the items near the bottom of the list (particularly the ones that are only 1 or 1/2 tsp), feel free to leave them out.
Capsicum and Fenugreek
According to Plant Genetic Resources of Ethiopia edited by Engels, Hawkes, and Worede, red pepper is the most essential and widely used spice in Ethiopia, and of course it forms the base of berbere seasoning. In fact, the Amharic word for chili pepper is በርበሬ or berbere!
Although every cook has their own unique blend, the critical ingredients that make a berbere a berbere are chili (Capsicum annuum) and also fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). As discussed in this paper, “the combination of fenugreek and red pepper is essential to Berbere; while one or two of the other ingredients may be left out, the fenugreek and red pepper are must-haves.”
In traditional Ethio-Eritrean cooking, berbere is used to flavour a variety of saucy stews called wots or tsebhi, such as misir wot (lentil stew) and shiro wot (ground pea stew) which are then eaten together with injera, a fermented flatbread. It’s also used to flavour an Eritrean tomato sauce called silsi.
As a dried spice blend, it’s technically safe for eating indefinitely, but it will start losing its flavour in a few months. It’s best to finish it within half a year. If you’re worried about using it up in time, you can also throw it in the freezer, where it will lose flavour much more slowly.
You can use this spice blend in many non-Ethiopian/non-Eritrean recipes as well, and even as a replacement for regular chili powder. It works as a seasoning for these roasted cashews, or in place of the spices in this borani banjan (eggplant casserole) recipe. In Eritrea it’s also quite popular to add berbere to tomato sauce, for pastas, salads, etc.
Nutrition, Cost, and Emissions Information
Each tablespoon of berbere spice blend is 24 cal, costs $0.15, and releases 6 gCO2e of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Calculation for full recipe as written (8 servings):
Feel free to contact me for sources on the nutritional and carbon emissions information presented here. Note that I am not a nutritionist and guidelines on this page are provided for informational purposes only.