Ethiopian Spiced Clarified Butter (Niter Kibbeh)

This week Ethiopians will ring in the New Year, and we’re celebrating with an entire month of Ethiopian recipes! Today I’m going to kick us off with a more personal piece that I wrote during my first trip to Ethiopia in 2014:

I am constantly amazed at all of the wonder and pain that exists in our world.  There are days when the world just seems so hopeless.  And yet there are so many positive things – a smile, a song, an inspiring story, a memory – that make everything worthwhile. I think this must be true whether you live in an NYC penthouse apartment or in rural village in Ethiopia.

The road through the village.

Travel keeps me humble and provides perspective.  I just spent over a week working in a rural village, located 45 kilometers away from the nearest town on a twisting dirt road, marred by the constant construction throughout the country.  As you enter the villages, the road ends and becomes a large swathe of flat grass.  There are no stores.  For most, having water requires a trip to the river or time spent at the water pump.  There is no electric grid, although solar panels can be found peeking out of the branches of some of the thatched roofs.  Being here taught me the distinction between an improved and unimproved latrine, an inappropriate thought that crossed my mind as I squatted over a wobbly wooden lattice, praying that the whole structure wouldn’t collapse into the pile of waste below, swatting flies away , and cringing in embarrassment at my poor aim.

Greeting a hard-working woman making food and cloth out of ensete (false banana)

I don’t like going to the bathroom in a latrine like that.  But it’s okay because for me, this is probably something I’ll do a handful of times in my life.  It is not my everyday reality.  Even more, it is a conscious choice I am making – if I really wanted, I could demand that someone take me to a better facility (and they would).  But for those who have to do it every day, it is an insult to human dignity.  I have similar feelings about being forced to bathe in a river, in full view of the passing cars.  Later, driving around Addis Ababa in a cozy SUV, we passed woman after woman descending a steep hill carrying immense loads of firewood on their backs.  Many of them were older, wrinkled from the hardship of life and too much time in the sun, bending over under the weight. It looked excruciating and I could not shake the nausea in the pit of my stomach.

Circular houses in the Gurage region

But life in Ethiopia is much more than misery.  Something about the community I visited was incredibly calming. Perhaps it was the large, circular huts lining the perfectly manicured street.  Perhaps it was the silence, or the lack of trash.  Perhaps it was the stares and smiles of everyone we passed, the waves from the children, and the kind greetings from the adults. I was invited for a tour of a home and a visit to a field of false banana plants.  The women were doing intensive physical work to yield the fruit of the false banana, and yet they smiled and welcomed me.  The project coordinator invited me to his home for lunch for boiled eggs, kocho (the food from the false banana), bread, and coffee.  Another family invited me in for coffee with salt (which I tried very hard to drink but struggled with).

Celebrating my birthday with strangers was both odd and incredibly welcoming.

The rural areas are, in many ways, beautiful and untouched. It is a place where you can appreciate the stars and the silence; feel one with nature; live off the land.  There is something very natural about that, and in a world overwhelmed with technology and screens one can’t help but wonder if this is the way things are meant to be. But rural life comes with even harsher downsides: sickness, infant and maternal mortality, famine, lack of education, poor nutrition, lack of clean water and sanitation, no safety net if something bad happens, no access to financial capital, child marriage.  It is a lack of choices about your life, because in many cases, decisions are made based on necessity rather than having an actual choice in the matter.  It is, as my Ethiopian friend says, powerlessness.  Imagine never being able to read a book, or go to school, or have a bank account, or choose when and who you marry.  Is it possible to have the best of both worlds, or must we be stuck with one or the other?


Last week, I explored the key spices in Ethiopian cooking by making homemade berbere. Today, I’m focusing on another staple: spiced clarified butter, called niter kibbeh. This is easy to make and really gives your food an Ethiopian taste. Big props to The Daring Gourmet for being an incredible resource as I learn to make Ethiopian food! I adapted this recipe from the site.

There are two special spices that are quite hard to find: Ethiopian sacred basil (besobela) and kosseret, a lemon herb. Both are native to Ethiopia; neither is common in the rest of the world and there aren’t great substitutes. Having said that, the general consensus is that you can make a good niter kibbeh without it.

Start by toasting the whole spices.

Add the butter and all ingredients into a pot. Let it simmer for an hour at least, but watch it carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn. I had to remove the heat occasionally to make sure it didn’t burn.

Strain through a fine cloth. I used a nut milk bag, which has turned out to be one of the best cooking gadgets I own because you can use it for so much more than nut milk. Though I learned the hard way that if you want to strain it well, you’d be wise to let it cool first…

That’s it! Now you have clarified butter, spiced Ethiopian-style!

Ethiopian Spiced Clarified Butter (Niter Kibbeh)

75 minutes, yields 2 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 (2-inch) cinnamon bark/stick
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon korarima (substitute: 3 black cardamom pods)
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 pound unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1/2 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon besobela (if you can’t find it, omit)
  • 1 tablespoon kosseret (if you can’t find it, omit)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Tools

  • Frying pan
  • Fine strainer (nut milk big, cheese cloth)

Directions

  1. Toast the cinnamon, peppercorns, korarima, fenugreek, coriander, and cumin seeds in a pan on medium heat, about 4 minutes. Be careful not to burn.
  2. Add all the remaining ingredients and the toasted spices to a pot. Let cook on low heat. Simmer on low for 60 minutes, watching carefully to avoid burning.
  3. Let cool enough to handle and strain the mixture using a nut milk bag or cheesecloth.
  4. Store in a jar on the counter or in the fridge.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Charlie S says:

    Enjoy reading the travel background as much as reading about the recipes! Keep up the interesting work!

    Like

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