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I Spice: Berbere

Doro wat, the popular Ethiopian stewed chicken, uses berbere. (J.M. Hirsch)

Ethiopian spices seem so similar to Indian ones that when I first heard about berbere, I knew I had to try it. Berbere, an absolutely delightful mix of spices used extensively in Ethiopian cuisine, is unique to each household, as are so many such mixes. It can comprise garlic, chiles, fenugreek -- and so much more.

J.M. Hirsch, author of the upcoming book “High Flavor, Low Labor: Real Food for Real Life” and food editor at the Associated Press, tells me he’s loved berbere ever since he first tried it nearly 20 years ago (in North Carolina, of all places). “I’ve been passionate about Ethiopian food. I love injera, the spongy flatbread used instead of utensils to scoop up and eat the rich and spicy thick stews that form the backbone of the cuisine,” he told me.

Berbere, Hirsch explains, is a pretty heady mix usually made from garlic, fenugreek, allspice, red pepper, ginger, chilis, coriander, cinnamon and black pepper, among many other spices. The flavor is at once rich and spicy, but also sweet and citrusy. This is the spice mix that gives doro wat, the stewed chicken that is all but Ethiopia’s national dish, its deep red color and delicious pungency. According to my Googling, recipes for berbere, at least those on the Internet, vary so much that a standard doesn't seem to exist. Hirsch says he doesn’t make it at home but uses store-bought blends that work well.

As with every other spice, store your berbere away from heat, light and moisture. (Hirsch takes his spice storage seriously: He had a special spice cabinet built into a defunct chimney in one wall of his kitchen to keep all of his spices cool and dark.) And replace when it no longer smells good.

Recipe Included

Like most dry seasonings, berbere benefits from heat and fat, both of which draw out and amplify its flavors. When Hirsch makes doro wat, the berbere and other seasonings go in the pot first, along with oil and an onion. A few minutes over medium-high heat brings out the best in the seasonings.

He recommends Kalustyan's, the fantastic New York City market, for his favorite berbere. I ordered mine from and was very happy with the results. If you’d like to make your own, chef Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, gave the Post this recipe a few years ago.

Here are five ways Hirsch suggests we use berbere:

  • The most obvious is doro wat, which sounds exotic, but really is just a one-pot chicken dinner. The flavors are complex, but not overwhelmingly spicy.
  • Meatballs: Mash together ground beef or turkey, an egg, some breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and a tablespoon or so of berbere. Form meatballs, then roast.
  • Mix berbere with a bit of olive oil to make a paste and use as a wet rub for chicken breasts. Grill the breasts over low heat or slice them into thin cutlets and briefly pan-fry in butter.
  • Whisk berbere into a blend of sour cream and plain Greek-style yogurt and use it as a dip for vegetables or in place of yogurt sauce with grilled meats or falafel.
  • Make a 3-to-1 mix of olive oil and berbere. Toss in some minced fresh garlic, then brush this mixture over pizza dough. Top with grated Manchego and bake.

I'll leave you with this amusing tale from Hirsch about cooking doro wat:

I was on assignment in San Francisco and got chatting with my cab driver. When he mentioned he recently had moved from Ethiopia, I told him of my love for doro wat and that I’d recently created a fast version of this traditionally slow-cooked dish.

He was aghast. I assumed he was upset I dared to tinker with his country’s national dish. Then I realized it wasn’t the tinkering that bothered him, rather that I had done so under the influence of testosterone. "In Ethiopia, men don’t make doro wat. They won’t even try," he explained. "It’s much too complicated. Only women will do that."

Here's to crashing through the culinary glass ceiling.

-- Monica Bhide

Doro Wat
4 servings

Be sure to serve this with warm flatbread or pita pockets. Most Ethiopian foods, even stews, are consumed by using bread (not spoons) to scoop the food.
Berbere is an Ethiopian spice mix that is available at Ethiopian stores and online spice sellers. See related recipe to make your own. Adapted from a recipe by J.M. Hirsch in "High Flavor, Low Labor: Real Food for Real Life" (Ballantine, September 2010).

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons ghee or butter
2 medium yellow onions, diced (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2-inch piece peeled ginger root, grated (1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons berbere (see headnote)
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
1/4 cup dry red wine
3/4 cup water
Freshly ground black pepper

Place the chicken on a large plate and drizzle it with the lemon juice, then sprinkle with salt. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the ghee or butter. Add the onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek, cardamom, nutmeg, berbere and smoked paprika. Saute until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine and water, mix well, and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken, turning to coat, and return to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.

Uncover and simmer for another 3 minutes to reduce the sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Per serving: 228 calories, 27g protein, 10g carbohydrates, 7g fat, 4g saturated fat, 81mg cholesterol, 149mg sodium, 2g dietary fiber, 3g sugar

By The Food Section  |  February 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, berbere  
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Since moving to the DC area, I've been thrilled with the options for Ethiopian food. My favorite is Meaza near Bailey's Crossroads. It's not that far from home and very good.

I took one crack at making Ethiopian at home before bowing to the experts. Since then, we always keep some berbere spice blend around. It makes a terrific spice rub. I mix it with a bit of vegetable oil and rub it on salmon filets or pork tenderloin. Either pan fry or broil.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | February 14, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

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