Berbere (pronounced “bar-bar-EE"), is also called berbere spice, berbere seasoning, or berbere spice mix.
What Is Berbere
Berbere is Ethiopian cuisine’s signature spice mix. Ethiopian cuisine is built on the foundation of heavily spiced grilled meats and stews made with either beans, grains, meat (typically chicken), or vegetables (or some combination of these). Often served with injera, a sour fermented flatbread with a slightly spongy texture.
This complex seasoning is spicy and smoky with hints of sweetness and earthy undertones. Berbere when combined with oil or red wine makes a paste called awaze, which is served as a signature condiment in most Ethiopian homes.
Berbere has been described as a cross between a barbecue seasoning and a curry blend. While it is a distinctly Ethiopian blend, it also lends itself to extensive experimentation in any kitchen.
The History of Berbere
Berbere spice gives Ethiopian cuisine its signature kick. Amharic language scholars (Amharic is the second most-spoken Semitic language in the world, after Arabic), believe that the name ‘barbare’ came from ‘papare,’ the Ge’ez word for pepper (Ge’ez was the language of ancient Ethiopia). Ethiopia is a country in the Horn of Africa and, according to linguists, the first Afroasiatic-speaking populations settled in the Horn of Africa region during the Neolithic era (10000 - 4500 BC). The Kingdom of Axum (aka the Aksumite Empire) was established in the early 1st century and included parts of modern day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia. More critically it had a direct route to the Red Sea. In the 3rd century the Persian prophet Mani considered the Kingdom of Axum to be one of the ancient world's four great powers, along with Persia, Rome, and China. The Silk Road is in reference to both the land and sea routes connecting Africa with Asia, the Middle East and Southern Europe.
By 400 AD the Kingdom of Axum was playing a major role in the trade between India and Europe due to its dominance in the Red Sea. The Axumites understood the secrets of the monsoon winds, and used this knowledge to send their ships toward India in summer, and back to Africa in winter. As the Axumite ships returned home they were loaded with black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg, and turmeric along with other exotic spices.
Berbere is thought to have been created during this time period as these imported spices made their way to Axumite markets, locals were fascinated and experimented with the wide variety of spices that they had access to. Over time, the locals developed their own spice mixtures, perfecting closely guarded concoctions that would be passed down to the next generation. With no specific recipe this spice blend would differ from region to region, village to village and even from family to family.
While the modern version of Berbere contains chile peppers these were not introduced into Berbere recipes until the 1500s when chile pepper seeds arrived in Morocco in 1514 and once in North Africa, chiles quicky spread along Arab and Sephardic Jewish trade routes to countries where pungent spices were already welcomed including those living on the Horn of Africa.
What Does Berbere Taste Like
Spicy, smoky, with sweet notes and earthy undertones.
Is Berbere Spicy
Berbere is a complex seasoning that is very spicy but is not bursting with heat. It is mellowed a bit by sweet and citrusy flavors.
Is Garam Masala Similar to Berbere
Garam Masala has a milder flavor and not the same level of spiciness as Berbere does. Garam Masala is an aromatic blend that is used to season meat and to add warmth and sweetness to curries, lentil dishes, and soups.
What Is Berbere Used For
Berbere is the flavor backbone of Ethiopian cooking, a cuisine built around heavily seasoned meats and stews served with a spongy flatbread called injera. Berbere ties all of that together, doing duty as a dry rub for meats, a seasoning for stews, lentils and grains — even as a tableside condiment. Traditionally, berbere is sautéed with oil and onions in the beginning stages of rich and flavorful slow-cooked wats (stews) that may contain lentils, beans, and/ or meat.
Berbere, along with garlic and wine, can be used to make Awaze, a strongly flavored Ethiopian condiment. Awaze can be used as a dip or marinade for meats and vegetables. As a standalone, awaze is used as a general condiment. So if you feel like your Doro Wat needs some more heat, pinch off a piece of injera (Ethiopian teff bread), dip it into awaze and then into the stew.
Given their love of seemingly anything spicy, it’s not unusual for Ethiopians to start their day with a spicy breakfast, as they do with ‘chechebsa,’ a classic breakfast dish that starts with a batter that's fried to make a large flatbread called Kita. The Kita is then torn into small pieces and mixed with berbere and spiced butter until it is a moist and soft mixture and often served with a side of fresh honey and a bowl of yogurt. Leftover injera from the night before can be used to make ‘firfir.’ Firfir (also called fit fit) is served by preparing awaze and shredding injera or kitcha (a relatively thin unleavened bread) into pieces and mixing the two.
Some home cooks add Berbere to burgers, meatballs, and roast chicken. We have also used Berbere to make Shakshuka and Sambousek.
What Can I Substitute for Berbere Spice
There is no seasoning blend that can really match Berber's very unique flavor. We feel that other seasoning blends from the region work best so we are more likely going to go with other African Seasonings. The one that is probably the closest in spicy flavor (but not as earthy or sweet) would be Baharat. For one that is loaded with similar earthy flavor (but not the same level of spicy heat) go with Ras El Hanout. If you prefer more kick (but not the same level of earthiness or sweetness) go with Piri Piri Seasoning.
|Ingredients||Cayenne, paprika, pepper flakes, fenugreek, clove, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, cumin, sea salt, coriander, cinnamon, and allspice|
|Also Called||Berbere spice, berbere seasoning, or berbere spice mix|
|Recommended Uses||Burgers, chechebsa, doro wat, eggs, firfir, meatballs, and sambousek|
|Flavor Profile||Spicy and smoky with sweet notes and earthy undertones|
|How To Store||Airtight container in a cool, dark place|
|Shelf Life||6-12 months|
|Country of Origin||USA|
|Dietary Preferences||Gluten Free, Non-GMO|
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Serving Size1 tsp
Amount Per Serving
% Daily Value*