If you've ever eaten food from the eastern Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia – chances are you've encountered berbere, a complex blend of chile peppers and spices. This all-purpose spice mix can add warmth and depth to all sorts of dishes like beans, meats, and stews, and even non-African fare from burgers to roasted vegetables.A heady combination of spicy, bitter, and sweet, berbere represents a blend of cultural and geographic influences from the spices of India to the chile peppers of the New World. Recipes vary from cook to cook, but the mix usually contains hot peppers, black pepper, fenugreek, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves. Other ingredients may include ajwain, cumin, allspice, nutmeg, paprika, onion, or garlic.
Berbere may be used dry or mixed with oil to form a paste. Traditionally it is used to season slow-cooked wats (stews) that may contain lentils, beans, and meat. We love sprinkling it into lentil soup, roasted vegetables, and sautéed greens. Some cooks add berbere to burgers, meatballs, and roast chicken. Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson suggests a delicious-sounding dip made with olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, berbere, and chopped olives.
Emily Ho is a writer, recipe developer, and educator. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches classes on food preservation, wild food, and herbalism. Emily is a Master Food Preserver and founder of LA Food Swap and the international Food Swap Network.
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