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Have you ever seen a spread of assorted Ethiopian dishes? If yes, then you know it is the vibrant colors that instantly draws you in before the distinct flavors win you over.

Amongst the long line of vegetable and meat feasts on offer are the bright red stews, such as ‘Doro Wot’, ‘Siga Wot’, ‘Awaze Tibs’, and ‘Miser Wot’ that you notice first.  The common ingredient in these highly palatable dishes? Berbere! – A traditional spice blend that has been the backbone of Ethiopian cuisine for centuries.

Berbere is a staple in the pantries of Ethiopian households, both at home and abroad, and it is slowly making its way to the shelves of Western supermarkets around the world.

Read on to find out a little about the wonder of the Ethiopian culinary culture that is Berbere.

What is Berbere made of?

T

he dominant ingredient in berbere is the rare Capsium strain of chiles grown on East African soil. Smooth in texture and boasting a glossy thin flesh, this distinct pepper matures from green to deep red brown in color.

Although the pepper packs a level of heat ranging from mild to high, it is somewhat evened out by its cinnamon-esque and citrusy flavors. The depth of aroma and delightful mixture of spice, sweetness, and earthy flavor is what differentiates this particular chilli from others in the family and what makes it a beloved ingredient in authentic Ethiopian cuisine.

Berbere, which means ‘hot’ or ‘pepper’ in Amharic, is often taken to be synonymous with the dominant ingredient used to prepare it, however, it is way more than that. Berbere is a spice blend born out of many ingredients and is a comprised product of dried vegetables, herbs and assortment of spices.

How is Berbere prepared?

There is no a universally accepted recipe on how to prepare berbere as individual households put their own creative twists dictated by centuries old traditions, passed down for generations in their family.

The typical mixture however consists of chillies, fenugreek, ginger, garlic, onion, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, cardmom, dried basil, Korerima, rue, as well as lesser known spices such as koseret, ajwain, and long pepper. Much like its South Asian counterpart ‘garam masala’, the components of the berbere mix are toasted and grounded together.

With its vivid color, the sight of berbere may register dangerously hot for the uninitiated. Although it is a fiery culinary gem, this unique blend is also very popular for its versatility. Berbere can be prepared to the liking of your taste buds by reducing the amount of pepper used without compromising its distinct and aromatic flavor.

bere spice scaled

What is Bereber used for?

Berbere is growing in popularity further away from its mainland, and it is slowly becoming an all-purpose seasoning of choice for many households and not just Ethiopians. Its versatility ranges from a blend for use of a thick spiced paste all the way as a natural coloring agent.

People use berbere in variety of ways, such as for:

  • For seasoning stew, sautéing, baking and frying both meat and vegetable dishes.
  • Tossed onto meats, vegetables, and sliced potatoes before roasting.
  • Used as a dry rub or grilling for chicken, lamb, fish, tofu or vegetables.
  • Added to dips and like hummus and mayo or stirred into yogurts.
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What are the health benefits?

Ethiopian spices and herbs are celebrated for their richness and various health benefits they pack, berbere is no different. Long standing Ethiopian tradition has it that a person who frequently consumes hot pepper has resistance to various diseases.

Berbere is very low in calories and is an excellent source of potassium, magnese, Vitamin A, B-6, and Iron. Because of their central component Capsiacin, chilli peppers are consistently cited for their health boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. The nutritional science is however not clear on how much of these spices have to be consumed to gain an adequate level of health benefits.