Although modern Ethiopia is a landlocked country, it has a long history of spice trading. In the 5th Century BCE, the Kingdom of Axum included modern Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, northern Sudan, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia. Square-rigged trading ships departed Axum via the Red Sea. Unlike the Roman vessels, they did not follow the longer, slower coastal trade route. The Axumites knew how to harness the Monsoon winds, opening up a sea route from Africa to India via the Arabian Sea. This journey took only fourteen days! The sea route to India enabled them to reach the Silk Road, giving them access to goods from China. Cinnamon, black pepper, clove, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cassia, and turmeric were some of the spices brought back by the Axumite galleys.
As these spices made their way to the Axumite open-air markets, local cooks were intrigued, and sprinkled them into the food. By experimenting with what was at hand, each family came up with its own individual signature spice mix. These recipes have been handed down from mother to daughter, and the recipe is a family secret. The essential ingredients of berbere are fenugreek and hot red pepper. Other spices that are commonly mixed in are allspice, salt, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and black pepper. In modern Ethiopia, families traditionally make their own spice mixture. Some families prepare a dry spice mix, toasting several spices together in a heavy pot over a fire. These spices are then ground with a mortar and pestle, and are ready to flavor the food. Other families prefer to prepare a wet spice mix, or a paste, combining the toasted spices with oil or water when grinding them with the mortar and pestle. The berbere mix is different in each region of Ethiopia. I have adapted a recipe for berbere from The Congo Cookbook. The Congo Cookbook is a collection of recipes from Africa compiled by epicurean Peace Corps volunteer Ed Gibbon. The recipes posted "are not new, unless they are new to you."
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 4 to 6 tablespoons of a combination of ground cayenne pepper (red pepper, dried chile peppers, or red pepper flakes) and paprika
- 1 tablespoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
It is traditional to begin with the whole spice, such as the allspice berries and cinnamon bark. Dry roasting the spice releases its essential oils, maximizing its aroma and flavor. To make a dry berbere mixture, take a cast iron skillet and warm it over medium heat. Place the spices in the skillet and toast them, stirring continuously. After about two minutes for whole spices, and a few seconds for powdered spices, place the spices in a bowl and leave them to cool down. When they are no longer hot, grind them together in a food processor or a mortar and pestle. To make a wet berbere mixture, substitute the powdered ginger for fresh, grated ginger. Add 2 tablespoons of minced onions or shallots, and substitute the dry garlic powder for fresh, finely chopped garlic. Add ¼ cup of vegetable oil or water to the food processor when grinding the spices. The berbere will retain its flavor if it is stored in an airtight container, in a cool dark place. The wet berbere should be stored in the refrigerator.
Berbere is the foundation of the wots or thick stews served in Ethiopia. A special technique is used to cook them. First, red onions are chopped and stirred in a hot, dry skillet until most of their moisture has evaporated. Then fat, (usually clarified spiced butter called niter kibbeh) is added. The onions continue to be cooked in the fat with added spices before any other ingredients are added. By sautéing the onions in this way, they are dehydrated. When the other ingredients are added, the onions serve as a thickener for the wot.
Doro Wot is the national dish of Ethiopia. It is a stew prepared with chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and berbere. Ethiopian Jews serve Doro Wot for Shabbat dinner. Below is a recipe for Doro Wot adapted from Ethio-Israel — a kosher Ethiopian restaurant in Jerusalem.
Doro Wot: Chicken Stew With Berbere
- 4 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 large red onions
- 4 garlic cloves
- Salt to taste
- 1 1/2 tbsp. berbere
- 3 lbs. chicken drumsticks
- 2 cups of water
- 4 hard-boiled eggs
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over low heat. Chop the onions and add them to the pot. Stir the onions until they become golden brown. Mince the garlic and add to the pot. Add the salt and berbere, stirring well. Stir in the chicken. Add 2 cups of water and turn the heat up until the pot boils. Then lower the heat, allowing the chicken to simmer for about 40 minutes. Check the seasoning and if necessary add salt or berbere to taste. Add the boiled eggs, and allow to heat through.
Doro Wot is traditionally served with injera, a sourdough crepe made from teff. Teff is a type of grass native to Ethiopia. The grain it produces is gluten free and rich in iron, fiber, protein, and calcium. To prepare injera, you have to mix teff flour with water and allow the mixture to ferment for about three days. It becomes a type of sourdough starter. This dough is then baked into a crepe over a wood-fired clay oven. See this video of injera being prepared in Ethiopia.
Injera: Ethiopian Crepe
Mix 1 1/2 cups of teff flour with 2 cups of water. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let stand at room temperature for three days. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over low heat. Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the skillet. When little holes appear on the surface of the pancake, remove it from the skillet onto a platter. Do not cook the injera on both sides! The injera is supposed to have a slightly sour taste due the fermenting process.
The way to present the Doro Wot is to place one injera crepe on a large, round platter. Then, spoon the Doro Wot onto the injera, artfully arranging the chicken, eggs, and sauce. This platter is placed at the center of the table. Additional injera is served on the side, usually beautifully folded like a napkin. The injera is the plate, the utensils, and the bread! Everyone helps themselves from the communal platter. The way to enjoy Doro Wot is to rip off a piece of injera, scoop up some wot with it, and eat. The injera lining the platter soaks up the gravy. As you eat it, you will experience layers of flavors and textures. The slight acidity of the injera will be the perfect counterpoint to the flavors of the berbere.
I wanted to know where to buy berbere spice mixture in Philadelphia, so I headed over to Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant. This is where many members of Philadelphia's expatriate Ethiopian community gather to watch Amharic television, drink Ethiopian beer, and talk. Among them, I have met members of Philadelphia's minute Ethiopian Jewish community. One young man shyly spoke Hebrew to me. Another gentleman, whom everyone addressed as "Doctor" left Gondar as a child. His family walked to Sudan, and was then airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984. He has two brothers in Haifa, who "have become really religious and wear kippas!" When I asked him where he gets his berbere, he said, "you should go to Mohamed's Halal Center," on 4525 Walnut Street. Mohamed is from Tigray, in Northern Ethiopia. Jewish and Muslim Ethiopians had a history of peaceful coexistence here. My daughter and I wandered around his store discussing the products in Hebrew. He welcomed us warmly, asked us what language we were speaking, and then showed us that all his products are Halal, Kosher, or both. He sells berbere that is imported from Ethiopia. You have to ask for it, because he keeps it behind the counter. I prefer this imported berbere, because to me it has an authenticity that is very difficult to duplicate. Mohamed's imported seasoning includes ground korarima seeds, from the ginger family, and long pepper or pippali, a hot pepper from Indonesia. This is the right place to avoid all the work involved in cooking your own injera. Mohamed prepares fresh injera every day right at his store. Most of Philadelphia's Ethiopian expatriates purchase their injera ready-made from Mohamed rather than making their own. They just warm it up in the microwave right before serving.
Follow these links to purchase ingredients online:
On one of these cold February nights, treat yourself to berbere-spiced Doro Wot with injera. If you would rather experience an Ethiopian dinner in a restaurant, you live in the right place. Philadelphia has one of the bigger Ethiopian expatriate communities in the U.S. There are many good restaurants to choose from. Our "little Ethiopia" is in West Philadelphia. My favorite is Abyssinia Restaurant. Other Ethiopian restaurants in the neighborhood are Dahlak Restaurant, Kaffa Crossing, and Ethio Café and Restaurant. For something different, yet exotically Jewish, try berbere!