WHAT IS IT
Bebere is an aromatic spice blend, Ethiopia’s answer to Chinese Five Spice. The many versions of it are like fingerprints: Thousands of highly unique, yet wonderful variations on the common flavors, and aromas that revolve around a few key ingredients.
You’re likely to see more than one mentioned in the Spicedex™, because you have to applaud the artistry in developing so many wonderful riffs, that have such uniquely different effects on the food that they enhance.
The main thing that distinguishes Ethiopian Berbere from other Berbere blends is a native spice, korarima. Aromatically, what sets it apart are the ground fenugreek seeds. It gets its brilliant color from its primary ingredient, paprika. That also greatly influences how the other spices interact.
After that, I’ve seen dozens of home, and a half-dozen or more commercial recipes. Some are spicier. Some are more aromatic. Others a tad more romantically musky, while a few even have a bit of curious dried citrus peel edge.
The spice blend, traded at a premium, proliferated out of Ethiopia a long time ago, and launched cooks, who loved the flavors, but didn’t love how expensive it was, into creating their own.
Desire to recreate the wonder of it, and local tastes, and customs, have set hundreds of thousands, perhaps a few million chefs, out to transform it, time and time again, over the millennia.
It’s incredibly popular across the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti. A less spicy, more savory version is common to Yemen, and the Sudans, and you’ll find a version, much more like this Frontier Co-op, that isn’t hot, but very very aromatic. One of the best is from Morocco, where they add in African basil.
Truthfully, you can find variations of Berbere from Marrakesh, to Manchester, to Minneapolis.
- Berbere-spiced roasted chicken;
- Misir Wat – Berbere-spiced red lentils;
- Doro Wat – Ethiopian stewed chicken;
- Atkilt – Cabbage, potatoes, and carrots;
- Gomen Wat – Ethiopian vegetables.
A FEW IMPROVISATIONAL RIFFS
- Ethiopian empanadas – a mix of shredded chicken, chick peas, potatoes, and carrrots.
- Potatoes O’Samir – A riff on Potatoes O’Brien – Irish-American meets Ethiopian-American;
- Jazz Chef’s Crispy Chick Peas
- Injera-wrapped Ethiopian Breakfast burrito – Eggs, topping a berbere-infused medley of vegetables and cumin-scented polenta with chèvre.
‘Barbare’ is the Amharic word for “pepper,” or “hot,” which is derived from ‘papare,’ the Ge’ez’s word for pepper, a previous ancient language of Ethiopia,.
The Axumites, from the ancient kingdom of Aksum (100-940 A.D.), which covered a range from what is now Eritrea, to Ethiopa, were seafaring. Their ships rode the annual monsoon winds on routes to China in the winter, returning to Africa in the summers. As a result, they had access to more exotic spices like black pepper, ginger, and cloves.
This created a ‘spice paradise’ in the kingdom, where every home concocted its own form of Berbere. Many of the recipes were jealously guarded family secrets, and passed on, and changed, by marriage.
The Berbere spice blend, therefore, is different pretty much from town to town, region to region, in Ethiopia. Carried to distant lands, it has evolved to different global palettes.
- Amharic: በርበሬ bärbäre,
- Tigrinya – በርበረ; bärbärä