Ethiopian Berbere: The Spice that Makes African Food So Addictive

254 Injera with berbere-spiced wat Injera with berbere-spiced wat
Wed., Apr. 18 2012 at 8:00 AM

Some spice blends are versatile and flavorful enough to define a type of cuisine. China has its signature five-spice. France is known for herbes de Provence. In the U.S., we have our own regional spice mixes, like Cajun seasoning and the many varieties of BBQ rubs. East Africa — specifically Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia — is best known for its unique blend, berbere.

Berbere, like most spice blends, can include a wide variety of ingredients, but it typically contains chili peppers, garlic, ginger, black pepper, fenugreek, allspice, and cloves. Before including it in a recipe, the blend is often mixed with water to make a paste, but it can also be used as a spice rub or seasoning. Basically, it can find its way into any dish from seafood and poultry to soup and lentils. Chances are that if you’ve eaten Eastern African food and, like many, found it addictive and satisfying, this little spice blend is responsible. Any of the popular stews called “wat” or “wot” most likely contain berbere.

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Jackie Mercandetti
Wat and other dishes at Ethiopian Famous

While isn’t any strictly Eritrean or Somali restaurants in the Valley, we do have our fair share of Ethiopian eateries. However, since Ethiopia is landlocked by Eritrea and Somalia, don’t expect to find much seafood. Café Lalibela in Tempe serves Asa Wat(shredded fish simmered with berbere, garlic, and onion) on the weekends. But luckily, East African cuisine is often vegan, which despite some diners’ reservations, is a really good thing. It means that Ethiopian cooks have perfected recipes that are satisfying without meat and animal products, and unlike in the States, they’ve been eating that way for centuries.

For a great vegetarian/vegan meal, order Miser Wot and Kik Alicha from Ethiopian Famous. The wot, a red lentil stew spiced with berbere paste, packs a bit of heat. Then theKik Alicha, a split pea stew, is milder to cut the heat of the berbere. With a little injera (spongy flatbread) to soak up the sauce and transport the lentils and split peas to your mouth, it makes for a filling lunch or dinner. Of course, if you’re in the mood for meat, you can opt for something heavier like Kaywot Yesiga, beef cubes in berbere sauce, onion, and garlic, served with homemade cottage cheese.




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