What Is Berbere Spice?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Berbere

Brian Yarvin / Getty Images 

Berbere is a traditional spice blend that is the backbone of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. It’s used in many different dishes, including Ethiopia’s national dish, doro wat (chicken stew). This fiery blend is a melange of spices mixed and matched in each individual cook’s kitchen, sometimes in different blends for different dishes. 

Fast Facts

  • Originated in Ethiopia and Eritrea  
  • "Barbare" in Amharic means "pepper" or "hot"
  • No two berbere blends are alike
  • Used to make stews like dor wot and as a condiment

What Is Berbere?

A versatile ingredient, berbere is a spicy mix of dried spices that is used to flavor stews made with any combination of meat, vegetables, or legumes. Spicy, sweet, and citrus notes come together to create a complex seasoning that adds flavor to everything from protein to fruit. Berbere can also act as a meat rub before frying or grilling. When berbere is combined with oil and mead or red wine it makes a paste called awaze, which is served as a condiment at the table. Berbere is available at specialty stores and can easily be made at home.

Origins of Berbere

In Amharic, Ethiopia’s state language, “barbare” means “pepper” or “hot.” Not surprisingly, berbere spice gives Ethiopian cuisine its signature kick. Berbere is thought to have come along in the 5th century when Ethiopia controlled the Red Sea route to the Silk Road. Traders had access to spices from China which found their way to local markets and eventually home cooks. Over time, households developed their own mix, perfecting blends that have been handed down through generations. 

What Is It Made Of?

Berbere is a traditional spice blend that can contain over a dozen different spices. The key ingredients are usually red chili peppers, fenugreek, and ginger, with the addition of warm spices like coriander, cardamom, allspice, cumin, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, and some lesser-known indigenous spices such as korarima, ajwain, and long pepper. 

What Does It Taste Like?

Berbere is a spicy chili blend, but its complex flavor isn’t bursting with heat. While not exactly mild, berbere is mellowed by sweet, citrusy flavors. Since it contains multiple ingredients, each with its own complex flavor and fragrance, berbere has no universal flavor profile. The most common ingredients in the blend impart warmth, spiciness, earthiness, and sweetness to slow-cooked dishes. 

Cooking With Berbere

Traditionally, berbere is sautéed with oil and onions in the beginning stages of rich and flavorful stews and braises. You can also sprinkle the spice mix onto grilled fish or fresh fruit right before serving for hot and citrusy notes without overpowering the palate. When berbere is made into awaze it can be used as a dipping sauce for injera (Ethiopian teff bread). For non-traditional preparations, whisk berbere into yogurt or sour cream for a zesty dip or into a sauce to accompany meats.

Berbere
baspentrubas / Getty Images
Doro Wat
Paul_Brighton / Getty Images
Crispy Spiced Chickpeas
jules:stonesoup / Flickr 
Spiced Chicken Wings
Ravsky / Getty Images

Recipes With Berbere

Berbere is an essential ingredient in some Ethiopian dishes like doro wat, but it can also be used as a spice mix in a variety of dishes. Add to vegetable and bean dishes and stews, or use as a dry rub for meats, to season meatballs, or as a seasoning for tartare or poke. Add it to sauces or make awaze and use as a dip or to top salads.

Try swapping the spices for berbere in these crispy chickpeas or grilled chicken wing recipes.

Substitutions

The following spice mixes tend to vary in components but they have a flavor profile close to berbere, with common ingredients like allspice, ginger, fenugreek, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Find a blend that contains a majority of spices that overlap. 

Where to Buy Berbere

You can find berbere in the spice or international section of a well-stocked supermarket. You may find it at some international markets as well, as well as spice purveyors online. You can easily mix up your own berbere spice blend using ground spices.

Storage

Store berbere in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to one year. Like all spices, use within six months for the best flavor. Berbere does not "go bad," but rather loses its flavor over time and will eventually take on a bland, woody flavor.

Benefits of Berbere

Berbere is low in calories, fat, and carbs and high in flavor. Since you'll likely consume a small amount at a time, the nutritional benefits are negligible.