Monday, May 23, 2011

Berbere (Ethiopian Chile and Spice Paste)

(This is the first in a series of several posts about my Ethiopian birthday feast.)

Often when I cook dinner, I forget that there are spices other than salt, pepper and garlic. Pouring over the ingredients lists for the Ethiopian dishes I planned to make certainly woke me up to the critical role spices can play in food. This berbere paste is no exception. It's a rich, thick spice paste that contains just the right amount of heat.

I had few of the ingredients for this ambitious spice mix in my pantry, and I ended up visiting four grocery stores to pick up all the ingredients I needed. The recipe calls for such small quantities of the most uncommon ingredients that I'll be able to prepare several more batches of berbere using what I have leftover.

This recipe requires you to prepare ingredients several different ways: mincing, boiling, sauteing, toasting, grinding, and pureeing. But the steps went quickly, and I found it easy to work on the different steps simultaneously. The complete spice mix came together in less than 30 minutes, and I stored it away in an antique canning jar for good measure.

Berbere is a key player in many of the Ethiopian dishes I'm creating, but I could also see it working great as a rub for grilled meats.

Look for this spice mix to debut in some Robert Linxe chocolate truffles any day now!
Berbere (Ethiopian Chile and Spice Paste)
recipe from The Healthy Hedonist: More Than 200 Delectable Flexitarian Recipes for Relaxed Daily Feasts by Myra Kornfield

This berbere paste recipe duplicates easily, and once made, it will stay good for about 3 months. I put a piece of tape on mine and wrote the date three months from now on it so I'll remember when to toss it out (although I doubt it will make it that far). The recipe yields about 1 cup paste.

2 ounces dried Pasilla chiles (2 loosely packed cups)
5 hot dried red chiles (such as Arbol chiles, Indian chiles or Thai chiles)
1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup water
seeds from 2 green cardamom pods
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
5 cloves (I omitted these because they weren't in my pantry, and I had read it as "cloves of garlic" in the store!)
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup basil leaves, finely chopped

Prepare and Boil the Chiles: Cut the stems off the chiles. Slit them down the middle to open them, and remove the seeds. It's not necessary to remove every seed! Place the chiles in a medium pot with water to cover them. Bring it to a boil, turn off the heat, and let the chiles rest until softened, about 10 minutes.

Boil Garlic, Ginger, and Onions: Combine the ginger, garlic, onion and water in a small saucepan, and bring it to a boil. Cook uncovered until the water is evaporated, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Toast Spices: In a heavy skillet over high heat, dry-roast the cardamom seeds, fenugreek, peppercorns, coriander seed and cloves together for 2 to 3 minutes Stir constantly. Place the toasted seeds in a mortar or spice grinder and grind to a powder.

Combine and Puree: Drain the chiles, and discard the soaking water. Place the chiles in a food processor, along with the ginger-garlic-onion mixture and the ground spices. Add cinnamon and salt. Process until you have a paste, scraping down the sides as necessary. Add the basil and process until well blended.

Store: Spoon the paste into a clean glass jar. Seal well, and refrigerate for up to 3 months.


  1. I have most of these on hand, the elusive Fenugreek being the only one currently missing. I will just have to go online as I have searched and searched here for it to no avail. I will try you suppose it can be frozen in small increments?

  2. Hmm... I'm not certain if it can be frozen or not. I googled it and just found a lot about freezing fennel! I found it in pretty small quantities at a local organic grocery. I could only find it in the pod, so I opened the pods up released the seeds.

  3. This sounds perfect - just what I was looking for!
    If you can't find ingredients locally, we're always open online!