Know Your Spices: Berbere

Berbere is a hot and earthy spice blend integral to Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. You can buy it premade, or blend and grind your own.

Berbere spice in a white bowl

Lori Rice

Berbere is a reddish-brown dried spice mixture that’s synonymous with Ethiopia, but it’s used extensively in Eritrean cooking as well. The predominant ingredient is ground dried chilis, and a host of dried spices, herbs, and aromatics play supporting roles.

What is Berbere?

Berbere has a deep, earthy flavor that can be fiery from the dried chilis. Many ingredients contribute to its complexity. Its heat level can range from moderate to quite spicy.

Traditional berbere takes days to make. According to Yohanis Gebreyesus in his book "Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa," Ethiopian households often make enough to last them for months.

It begins with drying chilis in the sun, then breaking them apart and pounding them. Next, wet spices (ereteb kemem) including garlic, ginger, besobela seeds, and other fresh herbs, are pounded into a paste and mixed with the chilis to form delez berbere. This is spread flat, dried, sprinkled with tej (honey wine), covered with besobela leaves, and matured for two days. Then it’s air-dried in the sun. Lastly, dry spices are toasted, mixed with the crumbled and dried delez berbere, and sent to a facility where it’s ground into a powder.

Berbere spice in a white bowl

Lori Rice

Ingredients in Berbere

Any combination of the following spices may appear in berbere. Chilis are non-negotiable, though.

  • Dried chiles (New Mexico or guajillo chiles make a good substitute for the ones used in Ethiopia)
  • Nigella (also known as black cumin or tikur azmud)
  • Ajwain (also known as ajowan)
  • Besobela
  • Cardamom
  • Coriander
  • Fenugreek
  • Nutmeg
  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Allspice
  • Black pepper
  • Salt

In more streamlined versions, ground ginger, onion powder or flakes, and garlic powder replaces the fresh ginger, onions, and garlic used in the initial fresh paste of traditional berbere. Paprika may stand in for some of the dried chilis. Some recipes also include a little red wine as a substitute for the tej.

Berbere in white bowl with wooden spoon

Lori Rice

Where to Buy

You can get berbere in the spice aisle at many mainstream supermarkets. Look for it shelves with the other spices, which are often in alphabetical order.

If you have the good fortune to have an Ethiopian market in your area, make a stop there and ask them about their offerings.

You can always order online, too. Eleni’s Kitchen berbere is made by an Ethiopian-born entrepreneur and blogger. We also recommend The Spice House.

How to Store

Keep berbere powder in a tightly sealed jar or bag in a cool, dark cupboard or drawer for up to a year. After that, it should still be fine to use, but its flavor won’t be as potent.

How to Make Your Own Berbere

Though traditional berbere may be a days-long project in Ethiopia, you can still make worthy versions in your own kitchen in fifteen minutes. Starting with whole spices and toasting them in a skillet helps to wake the flavors up. For those recipes, you’ll need an electric spice grinder (or a hefty mortar and pestle and a lot of patience). Some recipes call entirely for pre-ground spices.

Try our version by making the spice mix in this recipe. Here’s another recipe from an Ethiopian expat living in Portland, Oregon. Ethiopian-born celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s recipe is a go-to for many who are making berbere for the first time.

You’ll notice they’re all different, which is the point. There’s no single way to make berbere, though one ingredient always required is care.

For hard-to-find spices, order from The Spice House, Kalustyans, or Brundo Spice Company.  

How to Use

Heat opens up berbere’s flavor, so you want to add it to a dish as it’s cooking. It’s often used in thick or saucy foods.

Probably one of the easiest non-recipe ways to experiment with berbere is to treat it like a rub and use it on meats like chicken, beef, and lamb for grilling, roasting, or baking. Heat and salt levels in berbere can vary greatly from blend to blend, so be mindful about how much you use. Be brave and sprinkle a little on your tongue to get an idea of what you’re dealing with before you start.

In Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine, berbere goes into stews, sauces, legume dishes, and meat and fish dishes. Doro wat is a berbere-laced dish of stewed chicken with hard-boiled eggs. Misir wat is spiced red lentils.