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When imagining a spice mixture renowned for bold flavors, Ethiopian cuisine may not come immediately to mind. Berbere, a zesty hodgepodge of Ethiopian spices, however, is one of the spiciest mixtures of herbs used in cooking. Though the ingredients used in the mixture can vary, they typically include cloves, rue berries, ginger, allspice, chili peppers, coriander, and ajwain.
Also known as red pepper paste or spice paste, berbere is typically prepared as a gummy composite. Depending on the chef or kitchen, individual recipes of berbere can be quite different. Some chefs prefer fenugreek in their spice blend. Others may add sea salt, cumin, nutmeg, black pepper, turmeric, thyme, or cardamom. Two less commonly used ingredients include long pepper and Aframomum corrorima.
Hot and spicy, this Ethiopian blend is frequently used in a traditional stew known as a wat. Also known as a wot, this thick onion-based meal may contain any variety of meats, including beef, chicken, goat, or lamb. Vegetarian varieties are also made; wot can be made from lentils or split peas as well.
While frying food, Ethiopian cooks often rely on a spicy coating. This coating is typically made from berbere paste. Middle Eastern and African chefs rely heavily on this seasoning for meals such as sautéed tibs or marinated kitfo. Breakfast foods, such as chechebsa pancakes, may be prepared with the paste. Butters and other cooking ingredients can be flavored with the spice mixture as well.
This special herbal blend is considered to be similar to the Indian spice mixture known as masala. Spices used in masala range from garlic and onions to cloves and ginger. Like berbere, masala varies by cook and kitchen, depending on what is being made and the preferences of the chef.
Another similar spicy blend similar to berbere is known as mitmita. This exotic blend contains some of the typical berbere ingredients, such as chili peppers and ginger. The burnt orange powder also often contains spices such as cloves, cumin, cardamom seed, cinnamon, and salt. The seasoning is frequently used to add flavor to beans, beef, and other foods.
In addition to Ethiopia, the blend is also heavily used in Eritrea. Injera pancakes of the country commonly call for the ingredients. Savory vegetable meals like tsebhi birsen and chicken dishes such as tsebhi derho also use the mixture.
To make berbere, lightly toast the herbs desired over low heat. Once cool, grind up the mixed herbs. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.