My Favorite Spice Blend---Berbere

by | Wednesday, May 1, 2013 | 0 comment(s)

My favorite blend perhaps of all time, it’s certainly the most fun to make. 

Berbere:  A traditional Northern African spice blend, particularly found in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.  I was introduced to berbere in a foul moudamas  breakfast dish (fava bean paste served with lettuce, tomato, and French Bread ) at an Eritrean restaurant in DC.  I had it right before hopping on the plane and heading back to Portland - I was obsessed with it the whole way home. The flavors were so rich and broad, so completely satisfying, that I can still remember the tastes of that meal.

So I started experimenting with both foul moudamas  and berbere.  Berbere is an intriguing blend; I haven’t found anything else at once so hot and subtle.

I think of Berbere as a spiced cayenne - that is, the base is chili and it is accented (or almost scented) with sweet, aromatic spices (like coriander, cardamom, and fenugreek).  As with American Curry Powder or Chili Powder there is no set recipe.  While, I was at Portland Spice, I had a customer who brought samples to share from a trip to Ethiopia - each one different from the other.  The only consistent element really was the chili.  One blend tasted to me like cayenne and Maggi (that wonderful MSG-laden bullion powder with the chicken on the box) in a 50-50 ratio.  

I’m not a fan of Berbere blends that use a paprika base; I think it’s typically used to lessen the heat (I think it changes the basic nature of the blend- chili is more sharp and the other spices are enhanced by it) - if you want the blend to be less hot, cut the amount of chili in half and keep the rest of it the same.

This is not a blend  in which to experiment with unusual varieties of chilies - use the common dried red chili you can find in an Indian or other Asian market.

If you are not willing to toast and hand grind the blend - maybe don’t try it.  It IS definitely worth the effort.

It is very important to grind the spices TOGETHER - it’s kind of like layering butter and flour for pastry.

Note on toasting, grinding, and blending spices: It is very aromatic and sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. So, I never blend on an empty stomach.  At least have a piece of bread before you begin. 

  • 10-15 Dried Red Peppers
  • ½ tsp Whole Coriander Seeds
  • ¼ tsp Ajowan Seeds
  • ½ tsp Black/Tellicherry Peppercorns
  • ½ tsp Fenugreek Seeds
  • 1 small Cinnamon Stick (2" max)
  • 7 Whole Cloves
  • 8 Allspice Berries
  • 6-8 Green Cardamom Pods
  • ½ tsp Ground Ginger


Seed the chilies the seeds are very hard and difficult to grind: Simply break the pod with your fingers and dump the seeds out.  Set the chilies aside.

Remove the seeds from the Green Cardamom Pods and place the seeds in a bowl. Break up the cinnamon stick and add it to the cardamom seeds. Then add Coriander, Ajowan, Peppercorns, Fenugreek, Cloves, and Allspice Berries.  Set aside.

(Note on toasting spices: use your nose!)

In a heavy cast-iron skillet, over medium heat - no oil - toast the chilies for a couple of minutes.  Don’t walk away from the pan, keep it moving regularly.  Let the chilies become very fragrant, be careful not to burn the chilies!  But be sure to let them get fragrant.  Then add the other whole spices and toast, keeping the pan moving over the heat, until this mixture becomes very fragrant.  And I mean fragrant!

(Note on toasting spices: many people like to toast each spice separately because they toast at different rates - I like to do them together because I believe that the oils combine a bit in the pan.)

Remove the pan from the heat. Add the ground ginger to the hot pan and spice mixture and toast until that becomes fragrant.

Immediately transfer mixture to a mortar or a glass bowl.  Grind the spices together until it is a powder - coarse powder.  If you get tired you can toss it into a blender.  But do try it by hand first - it’s fun! 


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