An Ethiopian spice mix, with its origins in the 16th century spice trade routes.
The name comes from the Berber people of North Africa and I understand it’s correctly pronounced “bear-bear-uh” (with rolled r’s).
A friend of mine gave me some he’d had brought back from Ethiopia a while back and as I was about to put something about the stew I’d made with it, it occurred to me it’s probably fairly difficult to get hold of during a global pandemic.
After scouring the internet for a suitable recipe to make it from scratch, it turns out that top New York City chef, restaurateur, all-round nice guy and friend of Barack Obama, Marcus Samuelsson is also a big fan, and published his own version a few years ago. Of dual Ethiopian and Swedish heritage himself, he was quoted in 2015 saying:
“There’s a red spice blend called berbere, which has a smell that says Ethiopia. It’s made from chili, salt, cardamom, garlic, and ginger. When I’ve driven through the Ethiopian countryside, I’ve seen families putting their chilies and spices out to dry, later pounding them, stone to stone, grinding them together the way people made grits back in the day.
“The first time I had berbere in Ethiopia was about 10 or 12 years ago when I went to visit my father for the first time. (I was adopted and I didn’t know him before.) I’d had it at Ethiopian restaurants in New York or D.C. but it didn’t taste quite the same. On that particular occasion, I had berbere tossed with raw beef and spiced butter. It was delicious. Because it was a big occasion, it had a sense of specialness.
“Every country has its own spice blend. Certain cultures have been blended up, especially those with ports and a lot of trade, like Marrakesh. But Ethiopia has been isolated for a long time, so its spice blend isn’t well known and food made with it has an especially distinctive taste.
“While you can find berbere all over Ethiopia, I like to get it from Gurage, where my wife is from, because that’s where we’ve spent time. But every family in Ethiopia has its own version. It’s like succotash in the South, or matzo ball soup. The flavour also varies from region to region, depending on the amount of rain or sun, how dry it is, and how things grow there. Spice is very much like wine. It reflects its terroir.“
In the absence of much of an idea what was in the berbere I was given, I’m fairly confident Mr Samuelsson’s has the credentials to grace the pages of herdgastronomy.com.
This is adapted from his original recipe.
Thanks, Marcus. Send our love to Barry next time you see him. We miss him.
Makes about a jam jar full
Coriander seeds 4 tsp
Fenugreek seeds 2 tsp
Black peppercorns 1 tsp
Cardamom pods 12
Garlic powder 4 tsp
Allspice berries 6
Dried onion flakes 100g [How to oven dry onions]
Chiles de arbol 10 dried, or any other hot, small to medium dried chilli
Paprika 3 tablespoons, smoked if you’re feeling fancy (and rich), normal otherwise
Sea salt 6 tsp if using Maldon, otherwise 3 tsp
Cinnamon 1 tsp
Ginger 1 tsp
Nutmeg 1 tsp
Over a medium heat, toast the coriander, fenugreek, black peppercorns, cardamom, garlic and allspice until fragrant (3-4 minutes).
Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Place everything in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.
It can be kept in a cool, dark cupboard for up to 6 months.