Ethiopian food is unique and emphasizes spices, which is likely due to the country’s history as a key player in the ancient spice trade with Europe. Ethiopian food is characterized by complex flavors and spicy heat. Here are some of the popular spices used in Ethiopian cooking:
Ethiopian food has a lot in common with food from South India, especially when it comes to spice blends. Berbere spice is the Ethiopian equivalent of India’s garam masala and is used to flavor various dishes including the national dish of Ethiopia called doro wat. No spice blend is as essential to Ethiopian cuisine as berbere spice.
There is also no one berbere spice blend since cooks typically make their own and switch out ingredients according to personal taste. Most blends do have a heavy chili pepper component as well as strong aromas from spices like cinnamon and cardamom along with savory notes from cumin and black peppercorns. They also tend to include fenugreek and ginger. The result is always a complex set of sweet flavors with citrus notes, mild bitterness, and moderate to high levels of heat.
The second most popular spice blend in Ethiopian cuisine, mitmita is associated with the beef dish called kitfo and another similar one made from beef (bull meat) or sheep called kurt or tere saga. Kitfo and kurt are similar to steak tartare and Japanese sashimi in that the meat is traditionally served raw, though on some occasions it is lightly cooked. Mitmita is served as a condiment to be sprinkled onto the kitfo at the table.
Like berbere spice, mitmita combines spicy heat with sweet and warm spices. Mitmita tends to be quite a bit spicier than berbere spice. Mitmita blends can include hot Thai bird chilies along with cardamom and cloves. Mitmita typically includes salt, unlike berbere spice. Beyond its traditional applications, this spice blend is great for seasoning vegetables.
Unlike the powdered spice blends above, awaze is a paste. It is sometimes made by combining berbere spice and mitmita with olive oil and a small amount of Ethiopian honey wine. Some versions are simpler and contain only the wine, oil, and berbere spice.
It is possible to substitute mead for the honey wine and retain the authentic flavor profile. Awaze has a sweet warmth similar to that of garam masala, along with strong spicy heat from the chili peppers. Awaze is commonly served with kitfo and kurt but can be used as an all-purpose table condiment or as a seasoning for vegetables.
Piper capense is a relative of the black peppercorn (Piper nigrum) and is found in parts of Africa including Ethiopia. The Ethiopian name for it is timiz. Timiz is similar in appearance to Piper longum from Indonesia. It has a distinctive smoky fragrance and flavor in addition to resinous and peppery notes. Some describe the smoky flavor as being similar to the smell of tobacco. Timiz is commonly an ingredient in the spice blend mekelesha, which is used to finish stews.
Made with clarified butter, niter kibbeh is another spice combination that is essential in Ethiopian cuisine. The spices used to make it include fenugreek, cumin, and turmeric so it has a flavor similar to that of curry powder and can give dishes a curry-like yellow color as well.
Also known as wot kimem, mekelesha is a spice blend that is sprinkled onto stews just before they are eaten. The spices used are highly aromatic and include nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper.