What Is Berbere? The Story Behind The Spice

Berbere spice is Ethiopian cuisine’s fundamental spice mix and comes from the Ethiopian word barbare. Barbare translates to “hot” and comes from the Ancient Ethiopian word for pepper, which is papare. While the true origin of berbere spice is unknown — in the sense that no one is sure who invented it — historians speculate that its origins lie in the era when Ethiopians controlled the route to the silk road from the Red Sea.

With that control came access to goods from China. A variety of spices made their way back to Ethiopia. As a result, Ethiopian cooks learned to use cinnamon, cardamom, and turmeric among other spices. A variety of region-specific spice blends emerged from this era. Not only did the spice mixtures differ between regions within Ethiopia, but they also varied from family to family as well. The berbere spice that we know today is the modern version of those early blends. 

Berbere spice is most commonly sold in powder form but sometimes as a paste. If you have the powder, you can make your own version of the paste. Combine the spice powder with oil, water, or vinegar to get the desired consistency. The berbere spice paste is a great option for a marinade. 

Is berbere spicy? What is its flavor?

Because berbere blends differ depending on which spices the cook decides to use, there is no single universal flavor profile for the blend. Cooks use the spice to bring a range of flavors to different dishes, but some of those notes are more common.

Most berbere spice blends bring some heat from powdered chili pepper, which is what gives the mix its bright red color. Other common spices include fenugreek, cinnamon, and coriander seed. Some berbere spice recipes require nutmeg and cloves; you will also find korarima — Ethiopian cardamom — included sometimes. Some blends contain herbs as well; rosemary and thyme both show up in versions of berbere spice. 

Along with their peppery heat, berbere spice tends to be earthy and richly aromatic because of the sweeter spices. Some liken its flavor to a combination of curry powder and chili powder. 

Want to try your hand at a homemade berbere? Give our recipe a try.

Berbere Spice Mix
Check out this recipe
Berbere Spice Mix

Berbere spice uses

Berbere spice may appear to be an exotic, niche ingredient to some cooks. Its applications may seem limited to foods from Ethiopia; however, you will notice that most of its individual components are versatile spices that are popular all over the world. In other words, this seasoning is more of a general purpose blend than you might think at first glance. 

The best-known Ethiopian applications for berbere spice include doro wot and awaze. Doro wot is Ethiopia’s national dish. It’s a chicken stew with a red color that comes from berbere spice. It is the main ingredient in the popular Ethiopian condiment awaze, which consists of berbere spice mixed with wine and garlic. Ethiopians use awaze as a kind of dip. 

You don’t have to be cooking Ethiopian food to enjoy what berbere spice brings to a dish. It works in American-style dry rubs, where you can simply add salt to it or add it to the other spices in a standard rub recipe. Throw some into your meatloaf and hamburgers or sprinkle it over vegetables before you roast them. Spices like chili pepper, ginger and coriander are excellent seasonings for barbecue sauce and pulled pork. 

If you are making your own berbere spice, remember to toast the spices before grinding them to get the most out of the flavor.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on September 5, 2019 to include new content.
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