What Is Berbere? The Story Behind The Spice

If you’re looking to add some new flavors to your cooking repertoire, berbere is definitely worth exploring. What is it, how is it used, and how spicy is it? We dive into the history of the berbere spice blend, its key ingredients, and some popular dishes that feature its bold and flavorful profile. Let’s dive in.

Berbere Spice Mix

What is berbere?

Berbere is a spice blend that is commonly used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. It is a complex blend of spices that typically includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, among others. The exact recipe for berbere can vary depending on the region and the cook, but it is generally quite spicy and flavorful. Berbere is often used as a seasoning for meat dishes, stews, and vegetable dishes, and it can be used to add heat and depth of flavor to a wide range of dishes.

It 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. 

What does berbere taste like?

Along with peppery heat, berbere spice tends to be earthy and richly aromatic because of the sweeter ground spices used. Some liken its flavor to a combination of curry powder and chili powder. But because berbere spice blends differ depending on which spices the cook uses, 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, coriander seed, cumin, and allspice. 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. 

Is berbere spicy?

Yes, berbere is typically considered to be spicy. It’s typically a medium heat level, but it can vary significantly, depending on the specific blend and the amount used. Generally, it is recommended to start with a small amount and adjust to taste, especially if you are not used to spicy foods or it’s the first time you’ve used a specific version of the spice blend.

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

Berbere Spice Mix
A milder form of berbere, using chili powder and paprika, along with many other spices we've covered here. Want it spicier? You can add some cayenne pepper to the mix. Most ingredients are common spick rack staples – so quick prep time!
Check out this recipe
Berbere Spice Mix

Berbere seasoning 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 wat and awaze. Doro wat 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 seasoning from whole spices, remember to toast the spices before grinding them to get the most out of the flavor.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on June 26, 2023 to include new content.
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