Now that we’ve gotten kibbeh, kubbeh, and kasha out of the way, it’s time to visit a little-known corner of the Jewish culinary world: Ethiopia. For all intents and purposes, Ethiopian Jewish cooking is indistinguishable from Ethiopian Christian or Muslim cooking – none of the staple grains, plants or meats of Ethiopia are unkosher by nature, so Ethiopian cuisine never had to be ramrodded through the strictures of Jewish dietary laws like the cuisines of other regions in which Jews found themselves. In fact, the Ethiopian Jewish community, which was largely unaware of the developments of Rabbinic Judaism, continues to this day to allow the eating of chicken with dairy, prohibited for the rest of world Jewry long ago as one of Judaism’s charming moats around the wall around the fence around the Torah. But that’s neither here nor there. I learned to love Ethiopian food while living in Israel, so I’m calling it Jewish food.
I’m starting this series within a series with a primer on the basic building blocks of many (if not most) Ethiopian dishes – all of which you’ll need before you can think about making a full Ethiopian meal. First off is berbere, the piquant orange blend of chili peppers and fragrant spices used by the fistful in all those atomic bowls of wat. There is nothing subtle about berbere. It is a sucker punch straight to the sinuses. Naturally, you can’t do without it.
A note of warning before we begin: African birdseye peppers are hot. I don’t mean hot like your homemade pico de gallo when you’re feeling frisky and chop up a third jalapeño. I mean that the process of pulverizing dozens of them will produce invisible yet highly potent clouds of fine pepper particles which will spread quickly and thoroughly throughout the house, and you will essentially be mainlining 170,000 Scoville units with every breath you take. I have a high spice tolerance, so an afternoon of standing in the eye of a capsaicin hurricane only caused my eyes to water and nose to run, and also gave me a weird adrenaline rush, but when one of my roommates and her friends came in – up a flight of stairs from the kitchen – they immediately began gasping and coughing. I am not bragging; I am cautioning. If you can’t handle spice – and I mean spice, not Tabasco – don’t make berbere. You won’t survive the grinding, much less the eating.
On we go:
- Several fistfuls of dried African birdseye (piri-piri) peppers
- Several fistfuls of dried de Arbol peppers
- 1 green cardamom pod
- 1/2 nutmeg seed
- 8 – 10 long pepper catkins
- 8 – 10 cloves
- 1 tbsp whole fenugreek
- 1 tbsp whole ajwain
- 1 tbsp whole pimento berries
- 1 tbsp whole cumin
- 1 tbsp whole coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tbsp dried ginger pieces
- 2 tbsp dried basil
- 5 – 10 tbsp paprika
A few notes on the ingredients:
CARDAMOM: Cardamom is very strong, and in large quantities gives off an overpowering, somewhat soapy flavor. More than one pod is too much.
Green cardamom is not strictly a traditional berbere ingredient. In Ethiopia, a relative of cardamom called korerima in Amharic is used instead. Korerima is very difficult to find in the States unless you live in a city with a large Ethiopian community.
LONG PEPPER: This is an unfamiliar ingredient in Western kitchens, but was a common spice in the classical world. It’s related, and tastes similar, to black pepper. Indian stores should have it. It looks like little cattails.
FENUGREEK: Also rare in Western cooking, but crucial to Ethiopian, Indian and Yemeni cuisine. Has an interesting butterscotch aroma. Called “methi” usually in Indian stores, which is, once again, a good place to find this stuff.
AJWAIN: Also known as bishop’s weed. Small black seeds, somewhat like thyme. Indian store.
PIMENTO BERRIES: Also known as whole allspice.
You’ll notice that my measurements aren’t very precise. Eventually I’ll figure this out by weight, but trial and error works just as well. I usually wind up with about 300 grams of finished product, so if you’re uncertain, just use a kitchen scale and the spice measurements I’ve provided, then add peppers until you hit 300 grams. That’s the cool thing about grinding spices – you don’t add or lose any weight during the process.
1) Toast all of the whole spices in a skillet on high heat for a minute or so until they darken and become aromatic. Don’t burn them. Burned spices are not tasty.
2) Select the vessel you will use for grinding. For small amounts, I use my (massive) mortar and pestle. For larger amounts, you have several options. I find that my coffee burr mill does a bad job grinding dried peppers. Same with my food processor. The best method I’ve found so far is to use a blender on the highest setting, frequently stopping and starting so the mixture keeps moving. I usually grind the peppers in several batches. Whatever you decide on, fill it with the toasted spices, the untoasted spices (basil, paprika) and however many peppers you can fit. Grind until fine and uniform. Repeat with the remaining peppers if you need to until all peppers are ground, then combine well. It should look like this:
3) Now start adding salt and mixing well until the berbere tastes, well, salty enough. Berbere pretty much replaces salt in a lot of Ethiopian recipes, so don’t be shy on mixing plenty in.
That’s it. You’re done. Store it in a covered bowl or jar in the fridge. It will keep for months. And stay tuned for further instructions on how to use it…