DIY Berbere Spice Mix (Ethiopia)

Here’s announcing…Ethiopia month! To celebrate the Ethiopian New Year, I’ll be featuring one of my favorite cuisines for an entire month, making some of my favorite vegetarian dishes and sharing some facts about Ethiopia.

If you’re Ethiopian, it’s almost the year 2012. That’s one of the first interesting facts about Ethiopia- they have their own calendar. The reason is that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes that Jesus Christ was born seven years after the date used by the Gregorian calendar, which is the most widely used calendar in the world today.

I’m starting the month with berbere, a spice mix that is one of the key elements of Ethiopian cuisine. A blend of pungent seeds and hot chilis, it’s commonly used in many Ethiopian dishes.

I only recommend this recipe for the hardcore home chefs who, like me, enjoy spending their days off scouting shops for rare spices and love making things from scratch. If that sounds like torture to you, don’t fear – it’s likely a supermarket in your area carries berbere or you can order it online. While I usually like making spice blends at home, berbere is an exception because I don’t have most of the spices on hand already…and I’m guessing you might not either!

One of the spice aisles at Kalustyan’s 😍

Many of the spices that Ethiopians use on a daily basis aren’t widely available internationally. Lucky for me, NYC has Kalustyan’s, a specialty food store focused on Indian and Middle Eastern spices. I’ve been impressed with their collection in the past, but definitely didn’t expect to walk out with everything on my list given the rarity of some of the spices. But after a raging success where I found everything, I’m inclined to believe that if Kalustyan’s doesn’t carry it, it doesn’t exist. However, we don’t all have a Kalustyan’s in our lives, but I recommend swinging by an Indian or Middle Eastern market, if you’ve got one nearby.

Ready for Ethiopia month now!

Below I’ll cover the various spices used to make berbere, and offer suggestions for substitutions where possible. I can’t guarantee the outcome using substitutions, and the more changes you make, the farther from this recipe the result will be. Having said that, experiment away! I for one almost never follow a recipe to the letter.

  1. Coriander seeds: Stocked at most grocery stores. You can substitute ground coriander, but the flavor will be improved with the seeds. 1 teaspoon of seed = 3/4 teaspoon ground.
  2. Nigella seeds: Also known as black cumin seed, nigella seeds are used often in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Polish cuisine. If you can’t find them, substitute cumin seeds. An alternative name is kalonji.
  3. Fenugreek seeds: Native to India and Southern Europe, fenugreek seeds are frequently used in the preparation of pickles, curry powders, and pastes. Also called methi.
  4. Black peppercorns: Easy to find. You can substitute the same quantity of ground black pepper, but be aware the taste may not be as flavorful.
  5. Allspice berries: You’ve probably seen allspice in the ground form, so this is the plant form. 3 berries = 1/4 teaspoon ground.
  6. Ajwain: Also goes by the names carom seed, lovage seed, or Bishop’s weed, it smells like thyme but is more aromatic and less subtle. Caraway seeds are a more accessible substitute, as this one is tough to find.
  7. Korarima: This seed is native to the horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, and known as “false cardamom” because it looks like cardamom, but isn’t. This one is also tough to find so you can replace with green cardamom pods. 1 teaspoon korarima = 6 cardamom pods.
  8. Chile de arbol: OK, so this one is Mexican, but it’ll do the trick for the spice level and is pretty accessible in the US. The more chiles you add, the spicier your berbere, so you can control the heat here.

The ground spices are much more similar to ones you’ve used before…

  1. Sweet paprika (not to be confused with smoked!)
  2. Ground cinnamon
  3. Ground nutmeg
  4. Salt
  5. Garlic powder
  6. Ginger

It’s easy to make berbere if you have everything on hand. Start by warming the whole spices until lightly toasted.

Grind them to a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. I used my mortar and pestle (best kitchen tool you didn’t know you needed!!!) True, your final product won’t be supermarket flawless, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction and bicep strength that come with DIY.

Mix the remaining ground spices together and you’re done! You’ve taken the first step towards making Ethiopian food. In the next post, I’ll be making niter kibbeh, another building block of Ethiopian cooking, so stay tuned.

Berbere Spice Mix

Yields 1/2 cup spice mix; 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 5 chiles de arbol, dried
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds (sub: cumin seeds)
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek/methi seeds
  • 1 teaspoon korarima (sub: 6 cardamom pods)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon ajwain (sub: caraway seeds)
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 3 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Tools

  • Small pan
  • Mortar & pestle / spice grinder

Directions

  1. Toast chilis, coriander, nigella, fenugreek, korarima, black peppercorns, ajwain, and allspice berries in a small pan over medium-low heat. Toast until fragrant and light brown, about 4 minutes. Be careful not to burn.
  2. Grind using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Continue grinding until you have a fine powder. If doing it manually, this takes 5-10 minutes.
  3. Whisk together with paprika, salt, garlic powder, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Store in an airtight container in a dark place.

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