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.
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 the Kik 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.
Berbere isn't something you can just pick up in Phoenix; even Penzey's doesn't carry it. At least the ingredients are easy to find, and you can make your own blend of berbere at home. Remember that it's flexible, so don't sweat it if you end up skipping a minor player like turmeric or cumin. You can also add in coriander or nutmeg if you have them on hand. Once you have berbere, it's a cinch to cook Ethiopian dishes like miser wot and doro wat (chicken stew). As for homemade injera, that might be a little tricker, especially since it requires teff flour. If you can't work that part out, pick some up from Café Lalibela or Ethiopian Famous to complete your meal.
Berbere Spice Blend from Food.com & Ethiopianrestaurant.com
• 2 teaspoons cumin seeds • 4 whole cloves • 3/4 teaspoon cardamom seed • 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorn • 1/4 teaspoon whole allspice • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seed • 8 -10 small dried red chilies • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger (grated) or 1 teaspoon dried ginger • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric • 1 teaspoon salt • 2 1/2 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1. In a small frying pan on medium-low heat, toast the cumin, whole cloves, cardamom, peppercorns, allspice, fenugreek, and coriander for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and cool for 5 minutes.
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3. Discard the stems from the chiles.
4. In a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, finely grind together the toasted spices and the chiles.
5. Mix in the remaining ingredients.