Berbere Seasoning: Ethiopian Heat

While historians do not know much about Ethiopian cuisine prior to the 13th century, it is believed that berbere seasoning came about around 5 BC. Berbere is the Ethiopian word for “pepper.” Its arrival was at a point in Ethiopia’s history when Ethiopians ruled the Red Sea Route to the Silk Road. This gave their traders access to spices from China, including black pepper and ginger.

These spices would find their way to Ethiopian spice merchants and from them to local cooks. The result is the current mix that we know as berbere. Like most ancient spice blends, there is no one recipe. Ingredients and flavor profiles differ from region to region and even from household to household.

Berbere seasoning flavor profile

The berbere spice blend contains multiple spices that each bring their own complex flavors and fragrances to the mix. Because there are so many variants of the blend, there is no universal flavor profile; however, the most common ingredients add both warmth and sweetness to dishes. While many blends are blisteringly hot, some are able to deliver earthy notes along with the heat.

Health benefits of berbere spice blend

The berbere spice blend contains various spices, each of which provides nutritious compounds like:

  • Vitamins: Chili peppers are the main component of berbere spice, and they are rich in vitamins A and C. Both vitamins are potent antioxidants that help to protect the body from damaging free radicals. Vitamin A is also necessary for vision support and for a functioning immune system. Vitamin C’s other benefits include the fact that your body needs it to make serotonin as well as collagen, which your body uses to generate various tissues. The fenugreek in berbere spice is a rich source of riboflavin, which is also known as vitamin B2. Your body uses riboflavin to maintain skin health and for increasing energy levels.
  • Minerals: Berbere seasoning also contains fenugreek, which is rich in iron, copper and other minerals. Your body uses iron and copper to make hemoglobin and copper may also be an antioxidant.
  • Dietary fiber: Fenugreek seeds are an excellent source of fiber with a 100 g serving able to provide more than half of your daily requirement. Carom seeds and nigella seeds are both included in many berbere spice blends; these are also excellent sources of fiber. Fiber is good for both cardiovascular and intestinal health.

The spices in berbere spice blends can help to treat or prevent health conditions like:

  • Cardiovascular issues: Chili peppers like those in berbere spice have been shown to reduce levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, thus reducing the likelihood heart attack and stroke.
  • Intestinal distress: Ginger is a popular ingredient in berbere spice and one of its oldest uses is as a remedy for gastrointestinal ailments. You can use ginger to treat flatulence and nausea. The chemical that gives ginger its pungent flavor is zingerone; it is an effective treatment for certain types of diarrhea.
  • Respiratory ailments: Ginger can induce sweating, which may help with the treatment of colds and flu. In addition, the high vitamin A and C levels in chili peppers can also help to ward off infection.

Common uses of berbere seasoning

In Ethiopia, berbere is used to make a sauce called awaze, which is used much like a roux but with berbere spice instead of flour. It is a base for braised meats. Berbere spice is used to make Ethiopian favorites such as the chicken stew known as doro wot and the lentil stew, misr wot.