Ethiopian Cuisine with a European Flare

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FROM HER KITCHEN IN FRANKFURT, GERMANY, Wilhelmine Stordiau has given new meaning to the idea of Ethiopian diaspora cuisine.

When people leave their native countries and migrate to new ones, they naturally take with them a love of their mother’s (or father’s) home cooking. Just as often, they go into the restaurant business. That’s how the world first got to taste Hunan chicken, pad thai, tandoori chicken, borsht, phở, hummus, sushi, baklava and strudel.

Stordiau serving her food at an event in Germany

Wilma Stordiau serves Ethiopian food at an event in Germany

But for a variety of reasons – perhaps to please foreign palates, or because cooks can’t find the right ingredients, or just because traditions get lost – the cuisine of a diaspora sometimes doesn’t taste quite like it does back home.

Wilma Stordiau was born in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and she’s one-eighth Ethiopian (she has an Ethiopian great-grandmother). She lived in Ethiopia until about the age of 18.

Then, in February 1975, after four generations in Africa, her immediate family moved to Europe to get away from the brutality of Ethiopia’s new communist dictatorship. She learned German, married a German man, settled in Frankfurt, raised a family, and worked in business and industry.

Eventually, though, she did more than just preserve her memories of the Ethiopian culture and cuisine she had come to cherish as a girl. She decided to make a living of it.

Six years ago, Wilma launched Begena Tedj, a company that now makes three varieties of the Ethiopian honey wine t’ej as well as katikala, a grain alcohol that you might call the Ethiopian vodka. (“Tedj” is the German way of spelling the word.) She sells her potent potables all over Europe and in Canada, and she’s traveled the continent to build her business.

Wilma bottled her first small batch of Begena Tedj in 2009 after two years of testing recipes, adapted from her grandmother’s recipe back home, until she found one that satisfied her. She pondered many names for her product and finally settled on Begena, the most prized string instrument in native Ethiopian music – just like t’ej is the most prized drink.

Along with being a winemaker, Wilma is an accomplished chef across a variety of cultures. But it’s her Ethiopian cooking that especially delights. And I don’t just mean the doro wot, kik alicha, shiro, fasolia and other dishes – familiar to us all from Ethiopian restaurants – that she prepares for festivals around Europe.

Dirkosh with shiro (left) and spicy yogurt dip with berbere

Dirkosh with shiro (left) and spicy yogurt dip with berbere.

The writer Todd Kliman traveled to Addis Ababa recently and wrote a piece for Washingtonian magazine called “Can Ethiopian Cuisine Become Modern?” Perhaps Wilma has answered his question. She has a tremendous culinary imagination, and using the basic elements and foods of the Ethiopian table, she’s put them together to create diaspora cuisine unlike anything you’ll find in a restaurant.

Wilma simply calls her creations “fusion cooking” or “bridging” (Brückenschlag in German). “I think of the recipes as just guidelines,” Wilma says, “something like Denkanstoss – impulse to creation.” That means you can tweak some of the ingredients and preparations if you’re a skilled chef, or you can just trust the expert and do what she instructs. The dishes often don’t have their own special names, and Wilma usually describes them using their constituent ingredients. So just think of Shakespeare, and what he taught us about the rose.


BEFORE WE GET TO THE RECIPES, we need to talk about onions. “The ABC of the Ethiopian cuisine are the onions,” Wilma says. “When your onions are well made, your dishes cannot be bad.” That’s true of a traditional Ethiopian wot (stew), which revolves around kulet, a thick onion sauce spiced with berbere.

Not all of Wilma’s fusion dishes call for onions, and for the ones that do, it’s not always spicy onions prepared in a kulet. Sometimes, you just want plain chopped onions simmered in oil or butter. So here’s a recipe for making Wilma’s version of kulet. If a recipe calls for plain onions, follow this preparation, but don’t use berbere. Always use red onions in your recipes if you can. Ethiopians in Africa prefer shallots, and you can use them as well, although because they’re small, it takes more time to peel a lot of them before you chop them.

Kulet (Spicy Chopped Onions). Begin by chopping the onions very finely (I cheat and use a food processor). Then, cook them at first in a dry pot without water, adding water little by little after a while to keep them from drying out. “When the onions are well done and transparent,” Wilma says, “add the fat (butter or oil), then add the berbere. Add some water and let it cook until you prepare the other ingredients.” And keep an eye on it, making sure not to let it dry out. You want it to be thick but not a paste.

The fat in her recipe can be niter kibe (Ethiopian spiced clarified butter), or perhaps Indian ghee (clarified butter, but without spices), or vegetable oil if you like (Wilma prefers canola, I prefer olive). You can add this to taste, as rich and “fatty” as you want it to be. Just don’t overdo it. The same goes for the berbere: Make it as spicy as you or your guests can handle. And you can make this in very large quantities, freezing it in portions that you’ll need when you cook. It’s not unheard of to chop 10 or 20 pounds of onions to make a big pot of kulet. If you use, say, five pounds of onions, then three or four tablespoons of fat and one or two tablespoons of berbere will make it spicy and rich without going overboard.

This is one way to serve strawberries jubilee fitfit.  The recipe and another picture are below.

This is one way to serve strawberries jubilee fitfit.
The recipe and another picture are below.

There are two more staples that pop up in a few recipes, so let’s learn how to prepare them.

Awaze (Spicy Simmer Sauce). Using one tablespoon of berbere, blend in three tablespoons of water and one tablespoon of oil. You can make a version called deleh with three tablespoons of t’ej (or other wine) and one tablespoon of oil. Increase the ingredients proportionally for larger quantities, depending upon what the recipe demands.

You’ll need awaze in some of the recipes that follow. But you can also improvise, using it (or berbere) to spice up any dish you make in the cuisine of any culture.

Fitfit (Injera “dough”). As everyone surely knows, Ethiopians don’t use cutlery to eat: They grab their food with injera, a spongy sourdough flatbread. It’s challenging to make at home, so for the recipes that demand it, plan on getting yours at an Ethiopian market.

Fitfit is chopped injera mixed with or into something. In Wilma’s dessert recipes, you’ll need to give the injera a dough-like consistency by mixing it with the liquid that each recipe demands.

Fitfit should not be too dry but should also not be too moist,” Wilma says, so it’ll require some instinct on your part. You want your fitfit to be moist enough to mold into a dough-like ingredient that you can later cut into slices that hold their texture. So add the required liquid a little at a time to get the result that you need. In fact, Wilma recommends using old injera to make fitfit because it’s lost some of its fresh-baked moisture and can take on more of the flavor of the liquid you’re blending into it.

That’s it for the preliminaries, although there’s one more quick matter: Wilma loves garlic, and she recommends that you can use it to give “a fine touch” to any dish.

Now, let’s cook.


HERE ARE SOME OF WILMA’S UNIQUE RECIPES, most of which require at least one ingredient that you’ll need to buy at an Ethiopian market.

Dirkosh with Shiro. This is a dish made by combining these two items: dried injera (although you can also use fresh injera) and pea powder.

You begin by making the shiro in the quantity of your choosing, depending upon how many you want to serve. For every half cup of water, add one tablespoon of shiro powder, which you can buy at an Ethiopian market, and cook it in a pot at a gentle boil until it begins to thicken. For the purpose of this dish, you want the shiro to be feses (thin) rather than doke (thick).

Wilma's Meatballs

Wilma’s meatballs

When it’s ready, let it cool until it’s just warm rather than piping hot. Then, add the dirkosh (or fresh injera) and mix it up, using as much as you need to absorb the shiro. (You don’t want it to be “too shiro-y,” Wilma says.) Put the mixture in a square container (like you’re making a cake) and press it a bit so it won’t fall apart later when you cut it. Cover it with a cloth, let it stand and cool, and when it’s cool, put a film on it and let it stand over night. The next day, cut it into squares and add some garnishes – Wilma uses chopped or shredded chilis, tomatoes, parsley and chives. (See photo above.)

Meatballs. In any quantity you like, mix (by weight) two-thirds ground beef and one third fine bulgur. To taste, add salt, black pepper, and a touch of cinnamon and ground garlic. Mix well. Form small balls and drop the balls into boiling saltwater – or, if you like them crispy, pan fry them in hot vegetable oil. Serve cold or warm with a dip of your choosing: awaze, deleh, plain yogurt, or even yogurt with garlic.

Spicy Yogurt Dip. Some of Wilma’s ancestors are Armenian, and she calls this recipe an Armenian-Ethiopian fusion. It’s a great way to spice up your yogurt.

Put a piece of cheesecloth over a container and pour one kilogram (about two pounds) of yogurt in it, then let it drain overnight. (Wilma uses 10 percent Greek yogurt.) Put the drained yogurt in a bowl, add three tablespoons of olive oil, three teaspoons of berbere, and a touch of salt (you can adjust the berbere to your desired spice level). Mix until it’s smooth and creamy. You can serve this mousse with raw vegetables (carrots or celery or anything), tacos or chips, including dirkosh (injera chips), or even matzos. And Wilma adds: “The water of the yogurt can be used to clean the face. It is fantastic against comedones (blackheads).”

“You can use this recipe to make lots of different tasty dips,” Wilma says. “Instead of berbere, you take minced rue, tarragon, thyme, sage. You can use one type at the time or you can mix two or three different ones. Garlic is also very good. When you do the yogurt with the herbs, you have to blend the herbs in a mixer with salt and the oil.”

Spaghetti all' Arrabiatta (left) and penne with minchet abish

Spaghetti all’ Arrabiatta (left) and penne with minchet abish

Spaghetti all’ Arrabbiata. Prepare 1.5 cups of finely chopped plain onions, not the spicy kulet variety, but just before adding the butter or oil, add some bacon cut into small cubes. (You may not even need butter or oil if the bacon provides enough fat.) Then, add one tablespoon of salsa and one tablespoon of berbere, blending the ingredients well and letting them cook “until you are afraid that it will burn,” Wilma says. Next, add one can of tomato puree and one can (14 ounces) of cut tomatoes. Finally, add a cup of cut green olives, one-half cup of minced parsley, one or two cloves of garlic, and one or two bay leaves.

Let everything cook for 45 minutes or so over a medium heat to let the ingredients and flavors blend – “as long as possible,” Wilma says, because “sauces are always tastier when they cook long.” Add some salt if needed, and you can add sprinkle fresh oregano on top before serving, but don’t cook it with the oregano. Pour the finished sauce over your favorite pasta.

“Any kind of noodles can be served with real Ethiopian food and tastes fantastic,” Wilma says. “You have often noodles served on injera in Ethiopia, especially spaghetti. I would say that they have become part of the Ethiopian cuisine.”

Penne with Minchet Abish. This is perhaps the most “Ethiopian” of Wilma’s fusion cooking: It’s pasta topped with a traditional beef dish that’s sort of like an Ethiopian sloppy Joe. The pasta part is easy, so here’s how you make the minchet abish.

Chop three large onions and prepare them as described above in the plain variation (not kulet), adding a tablespoon of crushed or chopped garlic, and a half teaspoon of fenugreek (abish in Amharic). Cook this in the fat (niter kibe or oil) until the onions begin to brown. Add two tablespoons of berbere (or less, to taste) and a little water as needed to keep it from becoming too dry. Now, add one pound (one half kilogram) of ground beef and cook it all until the beef is done. Finally, add a quarter teaspoon each of cardamon and ginger, and a pinch of nutmeg (these spices are, more or less, what you call mekelesha in Amharic). Stir the ingredients and serve over penne (or other pasta).

Shrimp Wot. Prepare 150 grams (about one cup) of spicy onions (see above). Wash and drain 500 grams (one-half pound) of shrimp. Add the shrimp to the prepared onions, bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat. Let it stand for a few minutes before serving. Wilma says that frozen shrimp works just as well as fresh shrimp if you defrost them overnight in the refrigerator. You can also make this dish with calamari or a fish of your choosing.

Ye'shiro shorba and the ingredients used to make it

Ye’shiro shorba and the ingredients used to make it

Ye’shiro Shorba. This is Amharic for “shiro soup.” But shiro is a powder made of seasoned chick peas or peas, so in a way, this is an Ethio-fusion version of pea soup. Ethiopians make different types of shorba, and you’ll find restaurants that serve shorba made of lentil, chicken, lamb and the likes. But I’ve seen some other creative “Ethiopian” soups out there, like chicken and butter bean shorba, tomato and lentil shorba, pepper pot shorba, or just a good old vegetable shorba.

To make Wilma’s ye’shiro shorba, mix the shiro (2.5 ounces, or 70 grams) with a little bit of water so that it doesn’t clump, and then add the rest of the water (25 ounces, or 750 milliliters in all). Gently boil it on the stove until it begins to thicken, but don’t let it get too thick. Add three cloves of garlic, two chilis, some vegetable oil (2 ounces, or 70 milliliters) and four potatoes, cut into small pieces. Cook it for about 10 minutes, and when the potatoes are done, cut a strip of sausage into bite-sized pieces and add them to the shorba. You can add a little water at any time if it begins to thicken too much. Add salt if you think the sausage doesn’t make it salty enough. When the potatoes and sausage are cooked, discard the chilis, add a dollop of crème fraîche on top, and serve. This will make four to six servings. You can include some injera, dirkosh or croutons on the side if you like.

Berbere Deviled Eggs. Here’s a spicy twist on a party favorite. Hard boil some eggs, as many as you like, and cut them in half. Put the yolks in a bowl and blend in some canned tuna, add berbere and lime to taste, and a touch of ginger if you like it. Mix the ingredients and fill the halved egg whites. If the mixture is too dry, you can add a pinch of mayonnaise.

Goulash with dumplings (left) and berbere deviled eggs (right)

Goulash with dumplings (left) and berbere deviled eggs

Goulash with Dumplings. This is perhaps the most elaborate recipe we’ll offer – Wilma’s take on goulash, prepared with Ethiopian spices, and with a side of homemade dumplings (they’ll look a little like gnocchi).

Begin with 250 grams (about 1.5 cups) of plain onions (not the spicy kulet type), add 1.5 tablespoons of margarine, then four pounds (about two kilograms) or beef stew meat cut into bite-sized chunks. You can add two or three cloves of garlic if you like as well.

Sprinkle in three tablespoons of awaze and one heaping tablespoon of berbere (or less if you don’t want it quite as spicy). Let it cook for about 10 minutes, stirring and adding a little water if it gets too dry. Then let it cook for about 30 minutes more, again adding bits of water as necessary to keep it moist.

Finally, add half a pound (500 grams) of sauerkraut (homemade or prepared), one teaspoon of caraway and two or three ounces of t’ej or red wine. Let it cook for another 30 minutes. Be sure you have some sauce for the dumplings.

Now it’s time for the noodles. Boil a large pot of water. Mix half a pound (500 grams, or about five cups) of flour with about seven ounces (200 milliliters) of water (perhaps a little less) and a teaspoon of salt. Drop spoonfuls of the dough into the boiling water until there’s no space left at the bottom of the pot. “When the balls start swimming,” Wilma says, “the dumplings area ready.”

You can serve your goulash and dumplings with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche. And of course, you can make less of this recipe by lessening the ingredients proportionally.

Two ways to serve Wilma's mashed potatoes with berbere-spiced meat sauce

Two ways to serve Wilma’s mashed potatoes with berbere-spiced meat sauce

Mashed Potatoes. You might think of this beefed-up, spiced-up version of a traditional side dish as a sort of Ethiopian shepherd’s pie.

Begin by putting one kilogram (about two pounds) of peeled potatoes in a pot of cold water – enough to cover them – salt the water to taste, bring it to a boil, and simmer until the potatoes are very tender, about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes (if you cut them into pieces, they’ll cook faster). Wilma recommends floury potatoes rather than waxy ones. When the potatoes are tender, mash them into a purée.

Next, bring 250 ml (about 8.5 ounces) of milk to a boil, add it to the potatoes, and stir the ingredients together until they form a soft paste, then add a touch of nutmeg (Wilma prefers a “big touch”). You don’t want them to be liquidy because they need to absorb the sauce (which is the next step).

Finally, melt one and a half teaspoons of butter in a pan and add one-half kilogram (about one pound) of ground beef. Add berbere to taste – Wilma likes it hot, so she uses three or four teaspoons. Stir the ingredients together, then let them simmer at a low heat until the meat is cooked. You may need to add some water along the way, little by little, to make it saucy. When the spicy meat it ready, you can serve it atop the potatoes or alongside them (see photos above).


THAT SHOULD GIVE YOU PLENTY OF OPTIONS for your Ethio fusion entrées and appetizers, so let’s move on to desserts. Ethiopia isn’t a sweets culture, and there’s no word for “dessert” in Amharic. But leave it to Wilma to come up with some desserts that use unique elements of traditional Ethiopian cuisine.

Bula Pudding

Bula pudding

Bula – one of the acquired tastes of Ethiopian cuisine (if you ask me) – is a powdered form of enset, a tree used in many Ethiopian cultures as a vital sources of food. Ethiopians turn the trunk of the enset into qocho, a fermented bread-like food, and use the powdered form to make the porridge bula, which (if you ask me) requires lots of rich niter kibe and other spices to overcome its gummy consistency.

The next three recipes call for bula, but Wilma recommends that you mix the bula in each case with just a touch of cold water before combining it with the hot ingredients. When bula hits hot water, it tends to clump. So the cold water prepares it a little better for its final resting place.

Bula Pudding (Bertu Bula). This dessert, which looks like a pudding (see photo), adds spices and flavors to bula that greatly enhance its taste. Wilma’s nickname for it is bertu bula, taken from bertukan, the Amharic word for an orange.

To make it, boil three cloves, a one-inch piece of ginger and one star anise in 50 ml (two ounces) of water for five minutes. Let it stand for a few minutes, then remove the spices from the water and add 200 ml (about seven ounces) of fresh orange juice with the pulp.

Now, add one and a half tablespoons of bula and two teaspoons of sugar (more or less to taste). Bring everything to a boil for five minutes. Chill the dessert in the refrigerator before serving. Wilma recommends decorating it with mint and papaya glacé (sugar-glazed papaya).

Fortified Bula Pudding. Here’s another take on a bula pudding, this time with a bit of liquid courage.

Begin by stirring one and a half heaping soup spoons full of bula powder into 300 ml (10 ounces) of milk and let it cook gently for about five minutes. You can add a little more milk if it begins to thicken too much. When it’s cooked, pour in 40 ml (about one and a half ounces) of elderberry liqueur (Wilma’s preferred variety) or any liqueur of your choosing, and continue to stir until it reaches a pudding-like consistency. Pour the finished pudding into a bowl, and after it cools a little, put it in the refrigerator to chill. Sprinkle it with dabs of elderberry jam before serving (see photo below).

If it’s not sweet enough for you, add a little more of the liqueur. You can substitute syrup if you want the dessert to be non-alcoholic – not that anyone would, of course.

Fortified bula pudding (left),  and bula jello in the colors of the Ethiopian flag

Fortified bula pudding (left),
and bula jello in the colors of the Ethiopian flag

Bula Jello (Tafach Bandira). This dessert, once again using bula powder, doesn’t jiggle like real Jell-O does. So just as Wilma has appropriated the name, I’ve adapted it (what a difference a hyphen makes!). This complex dessert has three steps, each one corresponding to a color of the bars on the flag of Ethiopia. In fact, Wilma’s Amharic name for this dessert, tafach bandira, means “sweet flag” in Amharic.

One thing to note: For this, you’ll need a fruit-flavored wine and a piece of fresh fruit matching the flavor. Wilma recommends peach, but if you use a wine with a different flavor, then use the appropriate matching fruit.

In step one (green), blend 200 ml (seven ounces) of wine with a peach note, one tablespoon of bula, one or two tablespoons of sugar (to taste), and two or three drops of green food coloring. Next, peel a vineyard peach (sort of shaped like a flying saucer) and cut it into little pieces. Bring the wine and bula to a boil and let it cook for a few minutes until it begins to thicken, then transfer it to a bowl and add the peaches.

For step two (yellow), mix 200 ml (seven ounces) of the syrup from a half-pound can of pineapples with a tablespoon of bula, add two or three drops of yellow food coloring, and let it cook for a few minutes. When it thickens, put it into the bowl with the peaches and add some diced pineapples.

Finally, in step three (red), cut five strawberries into little pieces, taking care to sort out white parts (if there are any). Put them in a pot, add 50 ml (two ounces) of water, two teaspoons of sugar and the juice of half a lime. Let it cook until the strawberries are very soft and easy to mash. Now, in a bowl, mix one tablespoon of bula with some water and add this to the strawberries. Let it cook for a few minutes, then add two or three drops of red food coloring.

When the strawberries are ready, pour them into the bowl with the other ingredients and let it cool in the refrigerator. When it’s ready to serve, invert the bowl so you have a round gelled dessert with layers of green, yellow and red from top to bottom, just like the colors of the Ethiopian flag.

Strawberries Jubilee Fitfit. This is a relatively quick and easy dessert – once you get the hang of making fitfit with the right consistency. The photos above and below show you two different ways to serve it.

Begin my tearing three pieces of injera into little chunks. Boil about a cup of water (250 ml) for about 10 minutes with two or three cloves, a cinnamon stick of a few inches long, one star anise and an inch-long piece of fresh ginger. Let it cool, remove the spices, then blend it into the injera pieces to make your fitfit. Feel free to use your hands to mash it all together (that’s what I do).

When the fiffit is ready, mold it into a roll and wrap it very tightly with film (plastic wrap or wax paper). Close the two ends of the wrapping, and put it into the refrigerator for 24 hours. Now, cut some strawberries into bite-sized pieces, put some sugar and lime on them (to taste), and put them into the fridge as well.

The next day, carefully cut the fitfit role into slices, and serve with the strawberries. You can also add dollops of your favorite yogurt. In fact, feel free to puree some strawberries into your plain yogurt to enhance this dish. The photos above and below offer serving suggestions. Wilma also suggests crème Chantilly (whipped cream flavored with vanilla) as a nice garnish.

Papaya fitfit with its ingredients labeled, and strawberries jubilee fitfit (click to enlarge)

Papaya fitfit with its ingredients labeled, and strawberries jubilee fitfit (click to enlarge)

Papaya Fitfit. Here’s a unique dessert with some unusual elements, although the ingredients are certainly fungible: You can substitute mango for the papaya, and such things as cherries, blueberries or raspberries for the Peruvian cherries – a tomatillo-like fruit which, I suspect, you can only get in a big city at a well-stocked produce market (at least in the United States).

Making this is a two-day process if you want to do it the way Wilma does. So on day one, take about a cup (250 ml) of plain yogurt, wrap it in cheesecloth, and put it in the refrigerator. This lets the water drain from the yogurt.

The next day, blend 100 ml (three to four ounces) of cane sugar syrup, or more if you want it sweeter, with 200 ml (about one cup) of chilled Ethiopian coffee or espresso. You can also add a rue leaf if you have one in the garden, Wilma says. Now, chop up three pieces of injera, and use this sweetened coffee concoction to make your fitfit. Add the liquid slowly, in batches, to get the right consistency: not too dry, and certainly not soggy.

When the fitfit is ready, line a square bowl or tray with some film (again, plastic or wax paper), and put the fitfit into it, pressing it well to make it look smooth and even.

Next, cut up and mash the flesh of one half of a large papaya, then blend it into 250 ml (about one cup) of yogurt, using a spoon to stir and crush the ingredients into a nice cream. Spread the papaya yogurt cream on the fitfit, cover it, and refrigerate for two hours.

When it’s ready, you can “pull up the whole ‘cake’ with the wrapping and put it on a plate,” Wilma says, or you can cut it into squares. Decorate it with the Peruvian cherries, and if they came with their leaves, you can use them to enhance the presentation (see the labeled photo above). You can also decorate with little nibbles of papaya: Remember that you still have the other half of it left. The color of your finished dish will vary depending upon the color of the papaya that you used. And of course, if you choose to use mango, it’ll probably turn out to be orange.

About those Peruvian cherries: This is a species of fruit called Physalis peruviana that also goes by the name Cape gooseberry (among others, including aout in Amharic). It’s sort of like a tiny yellow tomato, so if you prefer more conventional fruit sprinkled on your dessert, just choose something equally small and decorate accordingly. You could even use tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica) as a substitute. It is, I suspect, easier to find.

Nefro is a dessert with an Ethiopian name and some spices you'll find in other Ethiopian dishes.

Nefro is a dessert with an Ethiopian name and some spices you’ll find in other Ethiopian dishes.

Nefro. This unusual dessert recipe has no unique Ethiopian ingredients, although it does use some spices that are important in Ethiopian cuisine. It’s another example of Wilma’s gastronomic imagination, and the name of the dish is an Amharic word that refers to boiled grains. The recipe does call for a little bit of Begena katikala, but you can substitute vodka. Katikala is a traditional Ethiopian grain alcohol that Wilma’s company makes. She only sells it in Europe, and you won’t find katikala anywhere else in the world outside of Ethiopia.

To make Wilma’s nefro, begin by washing and then soaking 60 grams (about two ounces) or wheat kernels – sometimes called wheat berries – in water overnight. You can substitute spelt or any other small-kernel grain.

The next morning, boil one liter (about 34 ounces) of water with the following ingredients: seven cloves, three cardamom pods, a one-inch stick of cinnamon, and a one-inch stick of ginger. Strain out the spices, put the washed wheat into the spiced water and let the wheat cook until it falls apart. You may need to add a little water as it cooks until it’s done.

When it’s ready, you have two options: You can blend it all into a purée, or you can keep it a little “lumpy.” As Wilma explains it: “I personally like some whole wheat in the pudding, so if you are of the same opinion, take a few spoonful away and blend the rest with your mixer. Return what you have taken prior to blending and stir.”

Next, add five tablespoons of cane sugar, then stir in 50 grams (about one and a half ounces) or candied lemon peel or another candied fruit chopped up into little pieces. Finally, add two or three tablespoons of katikala or vodka.

Put the finished dessert into a bowl and let it cool in the refrigerator. When it’s ready to serve, you can sprinkle it with powdered sugar and serve it with a dollop of whipped cream on the side (see photo).


LIKE MOST CREATIVE PEOPLE, Wilma can’t really explain how she comes up with a new dish or a variation of something that already exists. But she can say that the process begins by placing no limitations on your imagination.

“My philosophy, if you can call it such, is that there are no don’ts,” she says, “not in cooking nor in drinking. It has to be tasty, that is all. But how can you define tasty? What can be tasty for me is maybe horrible for you. Taste is something we grow up with and learn from our environment. When I think of the decomposed fish in Finland, my god! On the other hand, I like bula.”

A berbere-spiced shiro dip with injera chips (dirkosh)

Berbere-spiced shiro dip with injera chips (dirkosh)

For example, take the mushroom: It’s called indugay in Amharic, and you can now get indugay wot, a spicy mushroom stew, in Ethiopian restaurants around the world.

“The more common name for mushrooms in Ethiopia is ‘umbrella of the devil’ – je setan jantela,” Wilma says, “and back in Ethiopia, I never recall having it as a wot.” The cooks in her home didn’t prepare it when she was growing up, although it’s a beloved dish in other parts of Ethiopia.

And why, she asks, do people take to some new food items but not others: “When we eat shrimp, we go yum yum, and it’s regarded as a high-range food. But if you eat grasshoppers, one makes a funny face, even Ethiopians.”

Wilma says she’ll only eat chicken (doro) when it’s prepared by Ethiopians, and “I would never eat any doro if not cleaned by an Ethiopian or by myself. One should break the traditions and keep them as well. I hate it when someone says, ‘I have never seen it done this way.’ So what! Is it good or isn’t it good? That’s what matters.”

Aesthetics are also important when Wilma creates a dish, and that presents her with another challenge. “Certain things are very good but do not look right,” she says, “and this is what needs to be polished and becomes time consuming.”

For Wilma, it’s all about the new. “I just like creating things,” she tells me, “and once they are created, they do not interest me very much.” During our conversations, I introduced her to tihlo, a dish from northern Ethiopia: It’s small balls of roasted barley flour moistened with water, and you dip the balls into kulet. So now, she tells me: “I am thinking of two variation of it, but before doing so I need to make it and taste it. For the one version, it will definitely work out to have it served not only with kulet but with wot and call it Ethiopian fondue. The second could be a dessert, but I need to think more about it.”

At home, Wilma makes Ethiopian food about once a week, “but we have Ethiopian taste nearly every day,” she says, because she uses berbere and awaze to spice other dishes.

A smorgasbord of Wilma's international cuisine

A smörgåsbord of Wilma’s cuisine

Berbere becomes a drug for certain persons,” she adds. “Thank god you can get it everywhere nowadays. But when we came to Europe from Ethiopia [in the 1970s], it had to come from back home, and that was very difficult.” She counted on travelers – friends, pilots, stewardesses, even strangers – flying from Ethiopia to Germany to stock her kitchen.

So when will Ethiopian become the new Chinese? When will it become so well known and ubiquitous that you can get it in non-Ethiopian restaurants? And what has the diaspora done to cooking traditions outside of Ethiopia?

“I do not know how is was in the U.S.,” Wilma says, “but in Ethiopia and Europe, when Chinese restaurants first opened, you had no choice: You had to eat with chop sticks, drink your tea without sugar, and no bread was allowed. Later on you could ask for cutlery, and now you have to ask for chop stick.”

In other words, things change, and not always for the better if authenticity is your desire.

In India, people traditionally eat with their fingers, but Wilma notes that Indian diaspora restaurants never tried to get people to do that. Ethiopians, however, have never abandoned injera, although Wilma does see more Ethiopian restaurants in Europe offering cutlery to people who request it.

Still, there’s something special about eating an Ethiopian meal the traditional way. “Some Europeans do not like eating with their fingers,” Wilma observes. “My husband and eldest daughter never use their hands, even at home. My brother is the same. Yet all of these people love Ethiopian food.”

“For Europeans,” Wilma adds, “Ethiopian food does not look good. It takes an effort to have them taste it. But after they do, nobody can hold them – it’s just like a horse going back to his home. Restaurants do try more and more to have a nice-looking plate, but this is maybe where something more has to be done.”

Wilma notes that most Ethiopian restaurant owners in Europe are not professionally trained chefs: They’re just everyday women and men who like to cook and do it well enough to serve it to others. That can be a good thing because it means they may be more tied to tradition.


For example, the dish called zilzil is made with long strips of beef rather than the smaller chunks of beef used to make a wot. She recalls a German journalist who interviewed a cook while she was preparing zilzil, and the journalist asked how long she would make her strips of beef. “Sometimes I can get it a meter long,” the woman told him. “Afterward in the report,” Wilma says, “you heard the journalist complaining about this long piece of meat. But the longer the zilzil, the more professional you are.”

Finally, though, Wilma does see a problem with Ethiopian cooks of the diaspora.

“The feeling I have is that not only Ethiopians but Africans in general do not value their traditional foods as they should,” she says. “Wine is better than t’ej. Vodka is better than katikala. This makes the prices of t’ej and katikala lower. Although many dishes and restaurants are of a very high standard, Ethiopian food is ‘cheap’ if you compare it to what you get for the same price somewhere else.”

So she’d like to see Ethiopian cooks innovate, and she’d welcome such innovation with Ethiopian cuisine in non-Ethiopian restaurants:

“Ten years back, people didn’t even know what chicken tandoori was, but now it is part of the international cuisine. Many French think that couscous is a traditional French dish. And imagine that a wurst [hot dog] seller made a lot of money selling curry wurst, and she had the patent for her idea registered.”

Let’s hope Wilma has a few patents pending for her unique creations as well.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

COPYRIGHT NOTE: All of the images in this post are owned by Begena Tedj.

Berbere & Mitmita: Liking It Hot

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IF YOU CAN’T STAND a little heat, then you’d better stay out of the Ethiopian kitchen.

It’s not that Ethiopian cuisine doesn’t have mild dishes flavored with spices other than red pepper. There are plenty of them, and they’re delicious. But pepper is so essential to the cuisine that to avoid it is to shield yourself from a cherished part of the experience.

And Ethiopian food in American restaurants really isn’t all that blistering – not like the fire of Indian or Thai curries, or even Korean hot sauce. The predominant red pepper powder of Ethiopian cooking is a pungent blend of spices that adds both flavor and aroma to any dish that features it.

It’s called berbere, and it’s mostly the powdered flesh of the genus Capsicum (CAP-si-cum). Add a variety of other spices – more on the recipe later – and you have the brick red spice used to heat up a beef, chicken, lamb or vegetable stew called a wot.

Then there’s mitmita, again made from powered red pepper, lighter in color but much hotter than berbere, with fewer added spices and used in fewer dishes.

Dark red berbere, and the much lighter mitmita

Dark red berbere, and the much lighter mitmita

In Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia, berbere means two things: specifically, the red pepper powder used to spice a wot, and more generally, it’s simply the word for “pepper.” The Ethiopian scholar Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher even speculates that the name berbere derives from papare, the word for pepper in Ge’ez, the language of ancient Ethiopia (now only used in liturgical writing). The spice is so important across Ethiopia that the country’s two other most prominent languages use the word as well: It’s berbere in Tigrinya and barbare in Afaan Oromo.

Berbere and mitmita come from what we colloquially call chili peppers. They belong to the large family Solanaceae (the nightshades) and the broad genus Capsicum, which covers everything from the mildest of sweet peppers to plump green jalapeños and spicy red spears that can damage your mouth and digestive track if you eat them raw.

As for the species of Capsicum used to make berbere and mitmita, there’s some dispute among botanists and taxonomists about this.

All agree that the species Capsicum annuum is a reasonable name for the chili pepper used to make these two hot Ethiopian spices. But what about Capsicum frutescens and Capsicum abyssinium? Are these truly different species, or are they simply cultivars – essentially, breeds – of C. annuum? And what of the “African bird’s eye chili,” often the name you see given to the pepper used for mitmita?

Paul Bosland, a botanist at New Mexico State University, has explained it this way: “I think that saying ‘African bird’s eye chili’ is like saying ‘chili verde‘ or ‘green chili.’ Any piquin-shaped fruit is African bird’s eye chili.”

Peppers drying in the Ethiopian sun before becoming berebere

Peppers dry in the Ethiopian sun before becoming berbere

A few years ago, Bosland said, he received samples of C. frutescens, but most of them turned out to be genetically C. annuum. “Maybe this goes back to the days when C. annuum equaled C. frutescens,” he speculates. “From my experience, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Senegal all have C. annuum. There is little good African information.”

James McCann, one of the world’s top scholars of Ethiopian food, more or less agrees.

Capsicum came to Ethiopia, as to the Old World, via several avenues,” he says. “But farmers have long selected them for their own needs. Local variations are different from the original species, and now they are importing seeds from the international market for productivity, not authenticity. [An analysis of] the genetic origins would prove interesting and probably surprising.”

Menkir Tamrat has the same problem. The Ethiopian native, who has lived in America for more than 40 years, grows peppers in northern California and turns them into the berbere, mitmita and shiro that he sells locally. It’s a sort of retirement profession for him after years in the technology industry, and he, too, would like to know more about the genetic makeup and classifications of the peppers he’s growing from Ethiopian seeds.

Menkir grows a pepper that he calls Mareko Fana, a name that appears in the literature, along with other peppers like Melka Zala, Weldele, Melka Shote, Bako Local, Oda Haro, Dube Medium, Dube Short. The first words in these names are the regions where they grow.

“The scientific literature on the berbere varieties is poor at best and worse for mitmita,” Menkir says. “The biggest problem is that there are no pictures to go with the names. Mareko Fana is probably the only exception, distinctly chocolaty when mature. You can’t confuse it with anything else. I have a bright red berbere variety that we call Mareko Red for lack of knowing the real name. Sometimes I think it might even be the Baco Local variety.”

As for his mitmita seeds, they came from the Mareko region, “but I see a lot of variations in the plants and pods. With some varieties, the pods grow toward the earth (more common), and others have pods growing skyward.”

Many Ethiopian scientists have studied the country’s hot pepper varieties in a number of ways: for their growth and yield, for the way they’re marketed, for their importance to the economy, and for the various chemical and nutritional properties of Capsicum itself.

“Fresh peppers are an excellent sources of vitamin A and C,” Esayas Kinfe Bekele writes in his 2009 master’s thesis. “The role of ascorbic acid [Vitamin C] in the diet is thought to be significant in preventing common degenerative conditions including cancer, heart diseases, cataracts and immune functioning change due to its antioxidant nature. This vitamin is found in large amount in pepper.”

Esayas identifies three varieties of Ethiopian hot peppers: Mareko Fana, Bako local, Oda Haro

Esayas identifies three varieties of Ethiopian hot peppers: Mareko Fana, Bako local, Oda Haro

Seleshi Delelegne has written both a paper and a master’s thesis evaluating “elite hot pepper varieties” in Ethiopia “to investigate the performance of different varieties of hot pepper for growth, dry pod yield and quality,” with the goal of recommending what to grow and where to grow it. His longer paper includes a chart that notes the dates when various pepper varieties arrived in Ethiopia: Mareko Fana, for example, has been around since 1976, and Melka Shote only since 2006.

The introduction to Seleshi’s 2011 thesis provides a concise history of the arrival of red hot peppers from the New World:

Capsicum has been known since the beginning of civilization in the Western Hemisphere. It has been a part of the human diet since about 7500 B.C. Hot pepper is produced in all the continents except Antarctica, and historically associated with the voyage of Columbus. Columbus is given credit for introducing hot pepper to Europe, and subsequently to Africa and Asia. On his first voyage, he encountered a plant whose fruit mimicked the pungency of the black pepper. Columbus called it red pepper because the pods were red. The plant was not the black pepper, but an unknown plant that was later classified as Capsicum.

The crop spread rapidly across Europe into India, China, and Japan. The new spice was incorporated into the cuisines instantaneously. Probably for the first time, pepper was no longer a luxury spice only the rich could afford. Since its discovery by Columbus, the crop has been incorporated into most of the world’s cuisines.

The exact time of introduction of pepper to Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular is not certainly known. But its history in the country is perhaps more ancient than the history of any other vegetable product. Moreover, hot pepper has been cultivated in Ethiopia for a long period of time. Currently, it is produced in many parts of the country because, for most Ethiopians, food is tasteless without hot pepper. It is the main parts of the daily diet of most Ethiopian societies. The fine powdered pungent product is an indispensable flavoring and coloring ingredient in the common traditional sauce wot, whereas the green pod is consumed as a vegetable with other food items. The average daily consumption of hot pepper by Ethiopian adult is estimated at 15 grams, which is higher than tomatoes and most other vegetables.

This and other scholarship is very helpful. Yet despite all of the research, no one can say for sure when hot peppers arrived in Ethiopia from the Americas by way of Europe, and no on has studied the genetic makeup of today’s many varieties of Capsicum in an attempt to tell us how different they are from each other.

So I’ll just turn to Shakespeare to settle the issue: Capsicum annuum by several other names – all a little more than kin, but less than kind – is the pepper we use to make berbere and mitmita.


BERBERE IS SO ESSENTIAL to Ethiopian cooking today that it’s hard to imagine the cuisine without it. But for at least half a millennium, and probably even longer, that was the reality of the Ethiopian kitchen.

Excavations at the ancient kingdom of Aksum – the proto-Ethiopia, located in what’s now the north of the country and the south of Eritrea – found traces of the pungent plant cress, and scholars speculate that Ethiopians used it to spice their foods in the first several centuries A.D. When trade with India began, black pepper – qundo berbere, or literally, “main pepper” – entered the diet, and it became a cherished item used mostly by the elite.

We know that Ethiopians cooked the way they do now, making spicy wots served atop injera, since at least the 13th Century, and almost certainly much earlier. But by the 16th Century, they still didn’t have berbere.

Selling red peppers in Addis Ababa (1913)

Selling red peppers in an Addis Ababa market (1913)

Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest who traveled with a mission from his country to Ethiopia, published an invaluable early account of Ethiopian life in 1540, and he makes no mention of berbere. Alvares says that black pepper was the gift most prized by the emperor when the Portuguese presented it to him. This surely means that Ethiopians didn’t have the red hot Capsicum in the mid-1500s.

Tewolde notes that Capsicum “requires such extensive care that it dominates the farmer’s life, especially at the seedling production phrase. If it were present when Alvares visited Ethiopia, it would be expected that he would have noted it.”

Tewolde’s well-documented 1984 essay about New World foods in Ethiopia notes that the Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his 18th Century account, specifically mentions Capsicum. So Tewolde reasonably concludes that “chili pepper was introduced into Ethiopia in the two and a half centuries from 1520 to 1770.”

Bruce’s monumental five-volume account of his trip to Ethiopia, from 1769 to 1771, describes fiery Ethiopian foods seasoned with cayenne, which he says the Ethiopians mixed with black pepper.

Yet Bruce doesn’t call it berbere, and in his account, Ethiopians use both cayenne and black pepper to season their foods. Did he just not encounter the word, or had Ethiopians, as late as the 1770s, still not mixed powdered red pepper with other spices to make a seasoning unique to their culture?

By the 19th Century, European visitors began to note berbere by name.

In 1848, the British explorer Walter Plowden toured Ethiopia, where he ate injera and a wot spiced with berbere, “a small hot pepper resembling cayenne, ground fine.” Another Brit, Henry Dufton, observed the Ethiopians’ tolerance for spicy foods. “Not only do they use pepper on meats, but it is mixed in their bread, in milk, and even in the water they drink,” he wrote in his 1867 book. “It is here called berbere. On one occasion I was able to eat the hot dishes pretty well, but before my mouth had grown accustomed to it they were intolerable.”

“We ate with our hands,” the Russian Alexander Bulatovich wrote in 1897 of his visit to Ethiopia, “tearing off little petals of injera and collecting with them large amounts of all sorts of food. My mouth burned from the quantity of pepper. Tears came to my eyes. My sense of taste was dulled. And we devoured everything indiscriminately, cooling our mouths, from time to time, with sour cream or by drinking a wonderful mead – t’ej – from little decanters wrapped in little silk handkerchiefs.”

Either these visitors didn’t bring any game with them, or Ethiopian food in America has tamped down the heat considerably.


THE RECIPES FOR BERBERE AND MITMITA are pretty straightforward, and you can easily make them at home, although you’ll need a special tool to prepare them.

How many homes today have a spice grinder, a device that turns dried spices and seeds into the ultra-fine powder you can buy so easily – already dessicated and pulverized – in a spice shop? If you want to make your Ethiopian hot spices from scratch, you’ll need one. But frankly, it’s a lot easier to buy prepared spice powders and then follow a recipe for blending them.

You can also buy your berbere and mitmita from an increasing number of online shops, although one caveat here: Check the ingredients. You don’t want to get a blend that uses paprika as a base. Many of these businesses, owned by Ethiopians, import their spices from back home. That’s the best stuff to use.

Brundo, in Oakland, Calif., has done business online for several years, and so has the Louisville, Ky., company The new Silver Spring, Md., company Qmem (Amharic for “spice”) imports its spices from Ethiopia and packages them for commercial sale by mail and in markets around the Washington, D.C., area. All three are owned by Ethiopian-Americans.

And of course, if you live in a city with an Ethiopian market, just add berbere and mitmita to your Saturday morning shopping list, and pick up some injera while you’re there.

Two recipes for mitmita, in Amharic, from a Gurage cookbook

Two recipes for mitmita, in Amharic, from a Gurage cookbook

But let’s say you’re ambitious. How do you make your own berbere?

Here’s Daniel Mesfin’s way of making it, from his book Exotic Ethiopian Cooking: 15 pounds of chili peppers, five pounds each of fresh garlic and fresh ginger root, two cups of chopped red onion, a pound of rue seed, a cup of basil, a quarter cup each of cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, a cup of nech azmud (white cumin or bishop’s weed, also called ajowan), one and a half cups of salt, and three cups of water. You blend most of the ingredients and let them sit for 12 hours, roast the cinnamon, salt, cardamom and cloves in a skillet, eventually mix them all together, and grind everything into a fine powder.

Starting with 15 pounds of peppers will give you a lot of berbere, but you get the idea: Many different spices go into it.

You’ll find these same ingredients in Ethiopian Traditional Recipes, a cookbook published by the Ethiopian Nutrition Institute in 1980. But in Ethiopian American Cook Book, published in the 1970s in Ethiopia by a group of Ethiopian and American women, there’s a simpler recipe: red pepper, shallots (preferred by Ethiopians back home to red onions), ginger, fenugreek, nech azmud, tikur azmud (black cumin) and cardamom. This eliminates a few of the other ingredients and adds two new ones.

An Amharic cookbook I own, published in Ethiopia in 1964, adds a few spices that you don’t see in more modern recipes. The ingredients are garlic, red onion, ginger, white cumin, black cumin, tena adam (rue), basil, cinnamon and black pepper.

An even older book, A Talent for Cooking (1952), has many recipes that call for berbere but no recipe for berbere itself, as if the book assumes that Ethiopian women already know how to prepare it. And that’s probably true: Like gravy (i.e., pasta sauce) in an Italian household, each family has a recipe that one generation passes along to next.

Choose the one you like, but here’s the bottom line: Red pepper forms the foundation of berbere. Even in the simpler third recipe, it’s 30 parts red pepper to five parts shallots, and much less of the other elements. Note, too, that the peppers in all of these recipes must be dried – either in the oven or the sun – and crumbled into flakes.

Mitmita is a simpler spice to make yourself because it has fewer ingredients – as few as three, or perhaps as many as six. But of course, the recipe can change from chef to chef and culture to culture in Ethiopia.

From a hand-written 1984 Ethiopian cookbook, a recipe for berbere and a drawing of a woman grinding pepper. The recipe includes almost all of the spices found in various other books.

From a hand-written 1984 Ethiopian cookbook, a recipe for berbere and a drawing of a woman grinding pepper. The recipe includes almost all of the spices found in various other books.

For the simplest version of mitmita, just do what Daniel recommends in his cookbook: blend 10 pounds of serrano red peppers, one-quarter cup of cardamom, two tablespoons of cloves and a cup of salt (all dry powders).

Aster Ketsela Belayneh does it even more simply in The Recipe of Love: three pounds of hot chili pepper flakes, one pound of cardamom, one pound of salt. These are also the ingredients you’ll find in Ethiopian Traditional Recipes: 175 grams of peppers, 55 grams of cardamom, 201 grams of salt. No cloves in either of these, although Daniel doesn’t use a lot in his version.

A 1998 reissue of A Talent for Cooking adds a section of text in English. There’s a recipe for mitmita, and then another one for “not so hot” mitmita. The former has red peppers, cardamom, black pepper and salt, and the latter adds white pepper, garlic and red onions, presumably to dilute the effect of the red pepper.

The modernized A Talent for Cooking also has an unusual recipe for what it calls “family red hot pepper,” a blend “used mostly for low-income people who have less concern for particulars.” It appears right after the two mitmita options, but the ingredients sound more like berbere: red pepper, garlic, onion, thyme, white pepper, black pepper, cardamom, coriander, salt and fenugreek (called “finegreen” by the book), all of it cooked and dried and ground into a powder over the course of 24 hours.

And the 1998 revision includes something that the 1952 original lacked: an actual recipe for berbere that includes the usual ingredients.

All of these books tell you to bake or roast the ingredients a little before grinding them into a fine powder. You can reduce the ingredients proportionally in any of these recipes to make a smaller quantity, and you can certainly lessen the amount of salt to taste (mitmita can be rather salty).

For a more complex recipe, we turn to Gurage culture, which gave kitfo – chopped, seasoned ground beef, eaten raw – to the Ethiopian menu. Because mitmita is so essential to kitfo, and because kitfo is so essential to Gurage culture, the Gurages tout their preparation of the spice as the best.

My Gurage cookbook offers two recipes, although they don’t differ by much. Both require red peppers, salt, cardamom, koseret (an oregano-like African herb), tikur azmud (black cumin) and nech azmud. The only difference between the two is that one has considerably more salt than the other. And note again: no cloves, making Daniel the outlier with this ingredient.


SO NOW THAT YOU HAVE your berbere and mitmita, what do you cook with it?

Berbere is the essential ingredient in any wot – that is, a spicy Ethiopian stew, whether you make it with meat or vegetables. Considering how much Ethiopians love beef, you could say that siga wot (beef stew) is what’s for supper. It’s a relatively simple dish: onions, niter kibe (Ethopian spiced butter), berbere and beef chunks, although you can toss in some sliced jalapeños if you like, and just before you serve it, add some wot mekelesha, a blend of mild spices (cardamom, cloves, ginger) that adds effervescence and flavor.

Chicken drumsticks or thighs cooked in kulet – a thick onion berbere sauce – makes doro wot, often called the national dish of Ethiopia. You can even just make the kulet by itself, without adding chicken, and then use it as a dip or a meal (as some of the poorest Ethiopians do if they can’t afford meat). Or you can make a lot of it, freeze it, and use it later by adding meat (chicken, beef or lamb).

Then there are the many vegetable dishes: misir wot (red lentils), duba wot (pumpkin or squash), inguday wot (mushrooms), kik wot (split yellow peas), and numerous others. Again, all very simple: the vegetable or legume cooked in oil, onions, berbere, and perhaps a few other spices or ingredients, depending upon the dish.

From a 1964 cookbook, 11 different delleh recipes

From a 1964 cookbook, 10 different delleh recipes

And don’t forget shiro, the delicious dish made from spiced chickpea or yellow pea powder that you reconstitute in water and cook until it thickens. You can add some extra berbere if you like when you cook it, but the red shiro powder already has berbere in its blend of spices.

Ethiopians use berbere to make a number of simmer sauces or pastes that you pour over meats to spice them up when you don’t cook them in a thick kulet. The most common is awaze, which is simply berbere turned into a paste by adding water and oil. You can then use it as a dip, or you can pour some onto beef, chicken or lamb that you’re frying in butter with onions and peppers, creating tibs (fried meat). If you don’t use awaze, then you’ll have derek (dry) tibs.

Ethiopians also make a milder form of berbere or awaze called afrinj, using the seeds of the red pepper rather than the flesh, for people who don’t like it too hot. Some Ethiopian friends have told me that children may use afrinj until they’re old enough for the hotter stuff.

A variation of awaze is delleh, although I’m hard pressed to tell the difference. An Ethiopian-born friend tells me that she replaces the water in awaze with t’ej to make her delleh. My Amharic recipe books list regional variations, like Gondar delleh and Shoa delleh. They all begin with berbere and water, adding slightly different other ingredients. The Gondarine recipe is simple: berbere, salt, noog oil and water. Tweaking the ingredients, you can also make garlic delleh, abish (fenugreek) delleh, teqeqel (boiled) delleh, and delleh made with enkura or defdef, elements that are part of the fermentation of t’ej or t’alla (Ethiopian traditional beer). But no matter what you call them, they all begin with berbere.

There’s also daata, a much thicker paste of berbere and a few other spices. At Bunna Cafe in New York City, they make their daata with awaze, garlic, cilantro and vinegar. Daata can come as a garnish at an Ethiopian meal, something to put on your food or to enjoy as a dip, perhaps with injera or dabo (bread).

Finally, if you mix berbere with melted niter kibe, you have a hot buttery liquid with several applications (and without a name of its own, as far as I know). You can toast some injera in a pan and smear it with the nameless concoction to make kategna, a great appetizer or snack. The breakfast porridge genfo – barley flour cooked in water – comes with a well carved in the middle. Guess what goes into the well as a rich hot dipping sauce? Or you can enjoy kita, a mini-pizza-like item made from batter that’s fried in a pan and smeared with you-know-what. Break the kita up into little pieces and you have chechebsa.

The far hotter mitmita has far fewer applications at the table, but they’re important ones.

Ethiopians have enjoyed raw meat for centuries, and they now use mitmita to fire it up. The popular dish kitfo – raw chopped ground meat – contains only four ingredients: beef, cardamom, niter kibe and mitmita, all of it blended together. But if you want your kitfo even hotter, ask for a side portion of mitmita powder, and dip your food into it before swallowing.

You can also enjoy tere siga (“raw meat”) as chunks or strips in such dishes as gored gored and qurt, dipping the pieces of meat in powdered mitmita for some heat and extra flavor. Or you can mix mitmita with ayib (Ethiopian cheese). Daniel’s cookbook also offers the option of Ethiopian sushi: chunks of skinless fish filets dipped in powdered mitmita.

Daata prepared three different ways:  In New York (top), Chicago (left) and Ethiopia

Daata prepared three different ways:
In New York (top), Chicago (left) and Ethiopia

And that’s about it: No traditional mitmita sauces or dips like you’ll find with berbere. It’s pretty much all about the heat.

But you can also innovate with both of these spices and use them to flavor non-Ethiopian recipes. Some chefs do just that – not that you need a chef to tell you what to do in your kitchen – and as the popularity of Ethiopian food spreads, more uses for these spices emerge.

I’ve come to use berbere and mitmita in place of cayenne or the ubiquitous Sriracha brand of hot sauce in many dishes. Either one is excellent in pasta sauce, or in breading for pork chops and chicken. When I make chili, I replace chili powder with berbere. I season my meatloaf with chopped onions, chopped jalapeños, and mitmita. And don’t hesitate to sprinkle one spice or the other on your popcorn.

One of my homemade favorites is salmon patties, where I blend bread crumbs, mayonnaise and an Ethiopian pepper – berbere or mitmita, your choice – to make the paste, then mix it into the salmon (cooked and chopped up) to form patties. Bake or broil them until they’re lightly browned and you have a spicy riff (to say the least) on Ethiopian cooking. The website The Dish also has a recipe using salmon and berbere.

Here are a few dishes that other cooks have created using Ethiopian pepper powder:

♦ Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, adopted by a Swedish family, and now lives in New York City, where he’s a celebrity chef and restaurateur. As an adult, he rediscovered his Ethiopian heritage, and he’s begun to create recipes using berbere: For example, there’s his Ethiopian chicken taco, or his deep fried turkey with berbere. The turkey recipe uses the constituent elements of berbere, but you can always eliminate all of those spices and use the real thing if you have it.

♦ The website Blue Apron offers a twist on doro wot that uses a berbere jerk (i.e. rub) to season the chicken, which you cook in a skillet with vegetables and serve over couscous. See the recipe.

♦ J.M. Hirsch, a long-time food writer for The Associated Press, offers a lesson on using berbere that includes some quick suggestions and a full recipe for a chicken burger with goat cheese. See the recipe.

♦ Sylvia Fountaine read the novel Cutting for Stone, set partly in Ethiopia, and its talk of food inspired her to create a recipe for her Feasting at Home website. She prepares crispy berbere chicken over lentils (a favorite of the Ethiopian table). See the recipe.

♦ For another fish option, try Helena Spensatelli’s tilapia with berbere butter from her Saucy Girl’s Kitchen website. She uses regular butter, but if you can get it, why not use niter kibe, the Ethiopian spiced butter? See the recipe.

♦ How about some Ethiopian-spiced pizza? You could just sprinkle some berbere or mitmita into your sauce, but Seattle resident and vegan cook Richa Hingle-Garg goes even further, creating a misir wot pizza. Misir wot is the popular Ethiopian lentil stew, which she prepares with gomen (kale) and uses to top a pizza crust made of teff, the grain used to make injera. See the recipe.

♦ For a summertime cookout treat, make some rich thick sweet tangy berbere marinade and soak your chicken or ribs in it for a few hours before tossing them on the grill. See the recipe.

♦ At Global Table Adventure, Sasha Martin puts peas and corn into good ol’ mashed potatoes and adds berbere. Seems like a simple way to tweak an American classic. See the recipe.

As for mitmita, I can’t seem to find any unique non-Ethiopian recipes that employ it. So use your imagination, or at the very least, just sprinkle some mitmita or berbere on any dish that you prefer to eat spicy. I’ve even seen a few Ethiopian restaurants that put mitmita in a shaker on the table alongside salt and pepper, so maybe they’re trying to say that this fiery pepper complements anything. Just make sure you don’t have a twitchy wrist when you sprinkle it onto your meal.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Watch a video of seedling bed preparation for planting red peppers in Ethiopia.


Here’s the traditional way of grinding pepper to make berbere.


And here’s a more modern way using an efficient and inexpensive pepper grinder created by some graduate students at Stanford University.

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