Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Niter Kibbeh

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An Ethiopian spread, each dish enriched with niter kibbeh. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

How to Make Niter Kibbeh

Get the recipe here »

This recent Talk post on culinary secret weapons got me thinking about the secrecy and mystery that often come with spices. They're easy to hide in a finished dish and when carefully blended can become hard to identify. In a dish whose soul lies in spices, coaxing the right flavor out of the right blend in the right way can be a genuine challenge. But sometimes the answer's also dead-easy. A breeze to make at home. Inexpensive. With incredible depth of flavor. Now we're talking about a secret weapon of mass culinary destruction. Enter niter kibbeh.

What is Niter Kibbeh?

Niter kibbeh is nothing more than spiced clarified butter. But it's really something of a time capsule: fresh spices at the peak of their flavor are blended into ethereal balance, then locked in a solid almost impervious to age. When you use a few spoonfuls to sweat some aromatics or add a dab to finish a sauce, all that well-built flavor is released as an instant perfume that transforms whatever it touches.

The ingredients, for the most part, are simple. Confited garlic and onion yield a complex sweetness as well as buttery body. Ginger, cinnamon, and cloves add complimentary dimensions of flavor. The only spices you may have to go out and buy are cardamom and fenugreek, both of which I consider essential—cardamom for its menthol kiss, fenugreek for its unique bittersweetness. You can add other ingredients as you like: a couple chiles de arbol or a few gratings of nutmeg would certainly be welcome. But even a minimalist niter kibbeh is something transcendent.

How to Make It

The secret, and the only difficulty in the process, is slow cooking. As the water evaporates from the butter, the milk solids will also separate and float to the surface. As they brown, they impart a wonderful nuttiness to the butter, just as important as the spices themselves. But if they burn, the butter will turn irreparably bitter. So grab some reading and sit by the stove—a half hour at minimum, though more than an hour would be better—and keep an eye on those milk solids. Even after all the water has evaporated, the butter improves from additional cooking. And is there any better way to pass the time than leisurely reading or chatting with friends over a slowly bubbling pot of fat?

How To Use It

Many Ethiopian dishes commonly served in restaurants use niter kibbeh as a flavorful base on which to add additional spices and aromatics. As the frying base for a purée or as the fat to brown meats, it's so good it feels like cheating. If you're trying to replicate those Ethiopian dishes at home, it's virtually impossible without niter kibbeh.

Niter kibbeh is also god's gift to vegan cooking. Swap out butter for neutral-flavored oil and steep the spices on a simmer. You won't get the nutty browned milk solids, but slow-cooked onions taste and feel surprisingly buttery. Many Ethiopian restaurants have vegan sections of the menu, and are none the worse for it.

Beyond its Ethiopian roots, niter kibbeh makes a great substitute for ghee in Indian dishes. Or try using it for a confit as a flavorful but inexpensive alternative to duck fat. The beauty of niter kibbeh is that while it's rich and complex, it's won't cover up what goes with it. Deploy this secret weapon to your heart's content.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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