Chicken Drumsticks, Ethiopian Style

Check out these Ethiopian chicken drumsticks from Hank Shaw! The berbere spice mix is outstanding. ~Elise

This dish sounds a lot more exotic than it really is. It is a recipe I’ve been making, on and off, for 20 years, and it’s nothing more than chicken drumsticks coated in oil or melted butter, dusted with a dry spice rub and baked — or slow-cooked on the barbecue.

What makes this recipe Ethiopian is the spice mix, which is called berbere (ber-BERRY). I learned how to make it from my boss at the first restaurant I ever worked at, the Horn of Africa in Madison, Wisconsin. My boss, a tough old Eritrean named Meselesh Ayele (Eritrea used to be a province of Ethiopia, and is now an independent country), told me that berbere was the original curry, that the Indians copied the Ethiopians.

That was a common refrain in the kitchen: Ethiopia invented everything, and the rest of the world just copied it. They happen to be right when it comes to coffee, but I’m not sure I believe her on the curry thing. What I can tell you is that berbere is indeed a magical spice mix: Think of the sweet aromas of Moroccan food with a muscular punch of garlic and chile. No two berbere mixtures are the same, and cooks guard their secret mixtures with as much vigor as Southerners guard their barbecue recipes.

But there are a few constants: chiles and/or paprika, lots of garlic, black pepper, salt and ginger. Meselesh’s berbere always had a healthy hit of cardamom and fenugreek, too. Without those two ingredients, it just doesn’t smell Ethiopian to me. Other spices not in my berbere, but which are perfectly normal, include anise seed, turmeric, cinnamon, allspice, coriander and dried herbs like oregano and rue. Tinkering is not only allowed, but encouraged.

Cook the chicken how you want. You will need to reach an internal temperature of at least 175° for it to taste right, but I like to cook them slow and low until the meat is almost falling off the bone. The longer you cook, the more you need to baste with all that chicken-y goodness that renders out of the drumsticks.

I was a line cook when I made this recipe as a part of my rotation, which means I didn’t make much money. So for a cheap dinner I used to eat these drumsticks with a little white rice while watching the Wisconsin Badgers play on TV, drinking Leinenkugels or Point beer. Simple pleasures from a different time.

  • Prep: 10 minutes
  • Cook: 2 hours
  • Yield: Serves 6-8.

You can do this with chicken wings or thighs, too, but don't use breasts — they will dry out.

Ingredients

  • 3-4 pounds chicken legs, thighs or wings
  • 2 Tbsp peanut oil, or melted butter (or ghee)
  • Salt
  • Lemons or limes for serving

Spice Mix:

  • 2 Tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 Tbsp hot paprika, or 1-2 teaspoons cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Method

1 Preheat oven to 325°. Coat the drumsticks in the peanut oil or melted butter, then sprinkle with salt.

2 Mix all the spices together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, mix half of the spice mix with the chicken, then arrange the drumsticks in a casserole dish lined with enough foil to make a package; you will be cooking these legs covered for most of the time.

3 Sprinkle more of the spice mix over the drumsticks. You can use all of the spice mix, or stop whenever you want. The more mix, the spicier the chicken. Fold over the foil to seal up the drumsticks and bake for 90 minutes.

4 At 90 minutes, open up the foil packet to let the chicken continue to cook uncovered. Continue cooking for at least another 15 minutes, and as long as you like. I like the meat to almost fall off the bone on my drumsticks, so I cook uncovered for another 30-45 minutes.

5 To serve, baste with a little of the sauce that forms at the bottom of the pan, and use the rest to flavor some rice or flatbread. Squeeze some lemon or lime juice over the chicken right before you serve it. A green salad is a good side dish, too.

Main Ingredients

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