It's hard to say why, but Ethiopian food is one of the few regional cuisines from Africa to develop a significant presence in the States. Sure, we could stand to be more broad-reaching, but let's take a moment to talk about that a culinary arsenal of complex stews and brilliant spice blends. It's home-style cooking at its best: transforming the humblest ingredients—lentils, cabbage, cheap cuts of meat—into something extraordinary. If I had a dollar for every time I said to myself, "I wish I could cook this way," I'd have a few more Ethiopian meals under my belt.
Or, you know, cooking classes.
A fraction of the cost of classes, but just as rewarding, is a jar of berbere. Like niter kibbeh, it's used in a bunch of Ethiopian dishes, either as a primary spice or an added layer of flavor. You can think of it like Ethiopian chili powder: a chile-based blend at once earthy, sweet, and hauntingly aromatic, with notes of fragrant cardamom, fenugreek, and clove. There's some heat to be sure, and some versions are wildly spicy, but it's easy to find blends that deliver far more on earthy, rich flavors than pure spice. It'd be a mistake to say that berbere is a one-stop Ethiopian cooking lesson, but it's a damn good start. One whiff and your sense memories will definitely say, "Ethiopian restaurant."
"a plate of Ethiopian-spiced lentils is one of the world's great vegan dishes."
The most common use for berbere is in wats, stews made of meat or lentils to be eaten with injera, the tangy teff-based flatbread that is your fork, spoon, plate, and napkin in the world of Ethiopian dining. Wats are rich in spiced butter and onion, but it's berbere that gives a rustic, savory intensity to the dish. The spice is amazing with beef and chicken, but it really does rocket lentils to new heights. And since you can easily cheat your niter kibbeh by making it with oil rather than butter, a plate of Ethiopian-spiced lentils is one of the world's great vegan dishes.
But my favorite use for the blend is in tibs, little nuggets of grilled or sautéed meat blanketed in a rich, powerful sauce of onions slow-cooked in butter with berbere. To be honest, they remind me of Kansas City-style burnt ends. Sure, burnt ends are good. Okay, really freakin' good. But beef tibs may very well give them a run for the top meat snack trophy. We already know that juicy and butter are brilliant together. Tibs ups the ante with caramel-sweet onions and gorgeous spices.
One of the tricks to cooking Ethiopian cuisine well is to braise—and just as importantly, to know what really needs braising. It's not just the meat, or the lentils, or the main vegetables. Many Ethiopian dishes are built on braising aromatics and spices with large quantities of butter, one step short of a confit. The slow cooking caramelizes the vegetables and the spices while deeply seasoning the butter, which makes for an insanely rich sauce base.
These are the best uses for berbere, but not the only ones. As a fairly balanced chili powder, it's great rubbed on roast chicken, or blended into a compound butter for steaks. Beans of all kinds love it, as do meaty braises that are built on big, robust flavors in need of some heat. You can find berbere in Ethiopian groceries or in specialty spice shops. The good people at MySpiceSage sent me some of their berbere (available online), which I've been enjoying (and, at free moments, sniffing) with reckless abandon.