IMAGINE ETHIOPIAN FOOD WITHOUT BERBERE, the red pepper powder that gives a spicy wot its palatable fire. And yet, there was a time when Ethiopians had to prepare their food without it, and even without many of the spices – some hot, some not – that we all enjoy in the cuisine today.

Scholars don’t know too much about the fine points of Ethiopian cuisine before the 13th Century, when “modern” Ethiopian history began with the creation of the Solomonic dynasty of emperors. But since then, written records have made research much easier.

A collection of spices used in Ethiopian cooking

A collection of spices used in Ethiopian cooking

What we know for sure is that Ethiopians owe a lot to foreign cultures that visited the country over the centuries, especially when it comes to spicing up the cuisine.

I’ll return to the story of where Ethiopia got its spices a little later. But first, here’s a look at some of the essential spices – the Amharic word is qemam – used in Ethiopian cooking, along with a quick look at the dishes in which you’ll find them.

And by the way, if you see anything here you’d like to add to your own spice rack, and you don’t live in a town with an Ethiopian market, you can buy unique Ethiopian spice blends – like berbere, mitmita and mekelesha – at many places around the country that do mail order business.

Two of the more well-known retailers are Brundo, in Oakland, Calif., and Workinesh Spice Blends, in St. Paul, Minn. The latter, founded in 1978, was the first company in the U.S. to make and sell Ethiopian spices. But it doesn’t have a website, so you’ll need to call or write for a price list: 952-303-6710, 3451 W. Burnsville Parkway, Suite 102, Burnsville, MN 55337 (ask for Lemlem). In 2012, the company collaborated on the creation of a wall calendar that had an illustrated page of information about Ethiopian spices. And new to the market is Qmem Quality Ethiopian Spices, which imports its products from Ethiopia, packages them for retail sale, and then shares the profits with the women in Ethiopia who made them.

The Ethiopian Spice Rack. Before we take a closer look at the unique spice blends of Ethiopian cuisine, let’s meet the basic ingredients – almost all of them familiar to the American kitchen as well. I’ll give you the Amharic names for some of the most ubiquitous spices along with their English names, as well as a few dishes in which you’ll find them. In some cases, the Ethiopian-grown version is a little different than the kind we get in the U.S. And of course, with the difficulty of transliterating Amharic into English, you’ll find numerous ways in the literature to spell these spices.

Korarima. This is the sweet, effervescent – and very expensive – spice we call cardamom. It’s essential to kitfo, the beloved dish made with raw ground meat – and you’ll find it in some of the Ethiopian spice blends that I’ll discuss just below. I have an excellent recipe for fasolia – a stew of green beans and carrots – that also calls for some korarima.

Freshly made berbere

Freshly made berbere

Zinjibel. You can’t cook Ethiopian food without ginger, and you’ll find it in many dishes. Even if the recipe doesn’t call for it, toss some in anyway to give the dish a little extra flavor. You’ll probably want to use powdered ginger when you cook, but you can chop some fresh ginger as well, and you can even put a few slices of fresh ginger in your t’ej just before you strain and bottle it.

Abish. This spice even has its own dish: minchet abish – ground beef pan fried with spices. We call it fenugreek in English, and it’s a staple of Indian curries.

Besobela. My Ethiopian friends tell me that this is quite different than the type of basil we use, but that’s how we translate besobela. To distinguish the two, Ethiopians will sometimes call this “scared basil” in English. It’s a must in any spice blend intended to make niter kibe.

Ird. This powerful deep yellow spice – turmeric to us – gives flavor to an alicha, the milder Ethiopian stew. Use it sparingly or it can easily overpower everything else. You’ll also find it in butecha and azifa, two vegetable dishes traditionally served cold.

Tosegn. You won’t find this spice in too many recipes – sometimes a preparation for berbere or niter kibe will include it. We would call this thyme in English, although it’s an Ethiopian variety. You can also combine it with honey and water to make tea.

Tena Adam. This translates literally as “the health of Adam.” Its leaves and twigs help to flavor ergo (yogurt), ayib (cheese) and sometimes even berbere. The berries, boiled in water, can make a tea. In English, this is rue.

Tikur Azmud. Here’s another one you want to use cautiously: It’s cumin, a strong and flavorful spice. Not too many dishes use it alone, although it’s a key spice in duba wot (pumpkin stew). Once again, strictly speaking, Ethiopian tikur azmud isn’t quite the same as the cumin we use here. Tikur means “black,” and that’s the color of the seeds that you grind to make the powdered spice. In fact, nech azmud are the seeds of the white (nech) Ethiopian cumin plant, and they’re sometimes called Ethiopian caraway seeds, ajowan or bishop’s weed. And despite their similar Amharic names, the two types of azmud aren’t related and come from different biological families.

Kundo Berbere. We would call this black pepper: berbere is the general Ethiopian word for pepper, but used alone, that word means a special spice blend that we’ll get to in a moment. Kundo berbere goes especially well on the American table with chaw – that is, salt. Kundo berbere is the pepper species Piper nigrum (Latin for “black pepper”), but Ethiopians also use the species Piper capense to make another black pepper spice called timiz, which was the focus of a 62-page study in 2008 by Marion Avril. Both of these species grow in Ethiopia. The Piper longum species comes from India, and I’ve seen timiz linked with this species. Avril, however, asserts that timiz is Piper capense.

As for the meaning of kundo: It’s not in my dictionaries, and tikur means “black.” So I asked some Ethiopian friends what it means – and they said they’d never heard it by itself, only with kundo berbere. But finally, Stefanos Ghebrehawariat of Qmem, the spice import company, solved this mystery. His mother says it means “main,” and that makes sense: Long before Ethiopians had red-hot berbere, they had black pepper, which would have been the “main pepper” in their cuisine. I suspect it comes from the Amharic word qändänya, which one of my dictionaries defines as “main.” In fact, the better transliteration of the word is qundo, although it’s rarely written that way.

Nech Shinkurt. Literally “white onion,” this is the Amharic word for garlic, used in many dishes, and tossed into the mix at the beginning of the cooking process, when you’re simmering the shinkurt (onions) in oil or butter. And by the way, Ethiopians use shallots rather than larger onions in the most authentic cooking, although in America, red onions tend to take their place.

Mitmita is lighter and hotter than berbere

Mitmita is lighter and hotter than berbere

Dembelal. Coriander isn’t too common an American spice, but it shows up in some Ethiopian alichas and spice blends. Its aroma is somewhere between cumin and cardamom.

Krenfud. These are cloves, and they’ll often dominate a good mekelesha blend (see below).

OK, those are the basic herbs and spices that Ethiopians use. Now let’s see what happens when you put them together in various ways.

Berbere. This is the staple spice blend of Ethiopian cuisine: a brick red powder that every wot must have in order to be called a wot. The preparation of berbere begins by removing the seeds from chili peppers, drying them in the sun, grinding them into a power, and then adding small portions of garlic, ginger, sacred basil, cloves, fenugreek, cumin, cardamom and more, depending upon each chef’s recipe. The finished product has an aroma dominated by the red pepper, and you don’t need a lot of it to heat up a dish. I even use it in pasta sauces instead of crushed red peppers.

You can buy berbere all over the internet, but you need to be cautious: If you want the real thing, always buy it from an Ethiopian market, which usually imports it from Ethiopia. Some versions of berbere made outside of Ethiopia list paprika as their most abundant ingredient, and that’s just not pure enough.

Ethiopians use berbere to make a sort of simmer sauce called awaze, a blend of berbere, water and oil that you toss into the skillet to give some flavor to a dish like derek (dry) tibs (beef, chicken or lamb fried up in kibe with onions and peppers). Similar to awaze is delleh, which adds a spot of t’ej to the mixture. I have a dictionary that defines awaze as awaze and delleh as “red hot chili paste.” So the two names are somewhat interchangeable.

Mitmita. Hotter than berbere, lighter in color, and used in far fewer dishes, mitmita is a less complex blend of spices – and that’s why it packs more punch. Using the hottest of Ethiopian red peppers, you dry them in the sun, then grind them (seeds and all) into a fine power, adding a bit of a few other spices: cardamom, cloves, salt, sacred basil, and maybe some koseret, a sage- or oregano-like herb found in many African cultures. Some blends tend to be a bit salty, but mitmita is always blazing hot, so use it sparingly. It’s a great way to spice up non-Ethiopian foods, too, as an alternative to other red peppers or even to Sriracha, the wildly popular hot sauce invented in 1980 by a Vietnamese-American in California (and based on a Thai recipe created more than 80 years ago).

Mekelesha. The Ethiopian spice rack has numerous blends that you use to add extra flavor to a wot. The most common is simply called mekelesha, and it consists of a chef’s choice of ingredients: cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, ginger, cloves, and maybe even some nutmeg. The word means, more or less, “to make tasty.”

Mekelesha is easy to create at home if you have the constituent spices, and you mix them in proportions that suit your taste (although the blends I buy tend to be heavier with cloves). You traditionally add mekelesha to your wot just a few minutes before it’s done so the effervescence of the spices remains when you serve the meal. A makulaya is a blend of spices used as a sauté at the beginning of a cooking process. Another variation of the spice blend is a matafecha. As far as I can tell, the three are relatively interchangeable, but you’ll find mekelesha most commonly sold in markets and cited in recipes.

Here are some of the many commercial berbere blends on the market.

Here are some of the many commercial berbere blends on the market.

Manteria. When Indians clarify butter – that is, gently boil it until the milk solids separate from the fatty oil – they add no spices, but the Ethiopian version, niter kibe, adds lots of them. Manteria is a term that refers to the blend of spices you mix and put into the butter while it’s clarifying (the verb manter means to clarify). You can also call this by the more generic term ye’kibe qemam, or kibe spice. Once again, it’s chef’s choice, but some of the most common manteria spices are onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom, black cumin, white cumin, turmeric, fenugreek and sacred basil. In Ethiopia, they also use koseret. The spices all need to simmer in the boiling butter for a while, and then you strain the mixture through cheesecloth to remove the spices before letting the deep golden liquid solidify.

Shai Qemam. This is the Ethiopian teabag, a blend of spices used to flavor tea (shai). You can make your tea with just the spices, or you can put them into black tea. Shai qemam tends to be expensive when you buy it “mixed” in an Ethiopian market, so just mix some yourself: cardamom pods, cloves and a cinnamon stick – use proportions to suit your taste.

SO WHERE DID ETHIOPIA get all of these spices? How many have long been native to the land, and how many came from other places?

Ethiopia and India were trading partners before the Christian era, although there’s little documentation of exactly what got traded between the two cultures in those early times. There’s more evidence of it in the first century A.D., and many coins from Aksum – the ancient, proto-Ethiopian civilization – have turned up throughout the years in India, just as archaeologists have found Indian money in ancient Ethiopia.

Drying peppers to make berbere

Drying peppers to make berbere

The Periplus of the Erythraean [Red] Sea, a Greek trade manual written some time during the first century A.D., discusses trade between India and Aksum from the Indian point of view, noting items – iron, steel, belts, cloth, garments – that India exported through Adulis, a key Aksumite Red Sea port. The unknown author doesn’t mention spices. Two ancient geographers also noted the culture: Ptolemy (90 – 168 A.D.) mentions Aksum as the capital of a kingdom west of Red Sea ports, and Strabo (63 B.C. – 24 A.D.) wrote about the honey wine made by early Aksumites.

The preeminent Ethiopian scholar Richard Pankhurst has written that contacts between Ethiopia and India “date back to the dawn of history,” with India giving “cotton and silk, pepper and other spices” to the Ethiopians, who gave gold, ivory and slaves in return. Pepper is important here, for Ethiopians used it to add fire to their dishes before the arrival of cayenne by the 18th Century.

In her book The Emergence of Food Production in Ethiopia, Tertia Barnett notes that whereas coriander and fenugreek apparently had Ethiopian origins, other key spices arrived much later, when Ethiopia began to have contact with Europe. This includes the New World spice Capsicum, or cayenne, one of the varieties of chili pepper used to make berbere today.

But the archaeologist Sheila Boardman also notes that the Aksumites grew cress, a milder peppery native spice, which they probably used to flavor their wots along with rarer non-native black pepper.

“Cress is widely grown in Ethiopia as a medicinal and culinary plant,” Boardman wrote in Archaeology at Aksum, Ethiopia, David W. Phillipson’s account of a mid-1990s excavation there. “Before the introduction of New World spices, its seeds were widely used as the main flavouring in wot sauces, although the wealthy preferred to use black pepper, imported from Arabia and further afield.”

Pounding dried peppers  to make berbere, c. 1901

Pounding dried peppers
to make berbere, c. 1901

Boardman cites Sue Edwards, co-founder and director of the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia, as her source of information about cress. Edwards says that Ethiopians have long used such spices as black cumin, sweet basil and rue, as well as noog, which today gives Ethiopians an important cooking oil.

But even Edwards admits that it’s risky to extrapolate from these accounts of other cultures’ spice trade.

“There are many unresolved questions about the development of Ethiopia’s unique crops, particularly teff and enset,” she says. “It seems probable that teff was not used in the kitchens of the Aksumite nobility because it needs its own cooking technology.”

Catherine D’Andrea, of Simon Fraser University, has studied food in the Ethiopian highlands, and she concurs that scholars “know very little of the early history of spices and flavorings.” She, too, notes that berbere, a blend of spices, takes most of its taste from chili peppers, which the Aksumites certainly didn’t have.

So Aksumite wots, if they existed at all, were no doubt milder than today’s Ethiopian food, flavored first with cress and then perhaps with black pepper when cooks could get it.

The Aksumite empire went into decline in the latter part of the first millennium A.D. and then disappeared, leaving the emerging Ethiopia with no center for three or four centuries. Needless to say, there’s no written record of what people cooked and ate during these tumultuous culinary times. But eventually, leadership stabilized, and Ethiopia began to have contact with European cultures.

Spices for sale at Dire Dawa market in Columbus, Ohio

Spices for sale at Dire Dawa market in Columbus, Ohio

An Ethiopian embassy visited Europe in 1306 during the reign of King Wedem Arad (1299-1314), but the members of this earliest-known Ethiopian excursion to Europe didn’t leave behind much insight into their manner of eating. Then, beginning in the early 16th Century, European exploration of Ethiopia burgeoned, and the Portuguese led the way.

The Venetian Alessandro Zorzi never visited Ethiopia, but in the early 16th Century, he published a series of detailed itineraries of travel to and from Ethiopia based upon his research among monks who had been there. Most of these volumes discuss travel routes, but here and there they speak of food. Zorzi noted that merchant ships from other countries “bring all the spices except ginger, which is found in this land.”

In 1520, just as Zorzi was publishing his work, the Portuguese sent a mission to Ethiopia to forge relations with Prester John, the European moniker for Ethiopia’s Christian emperor. The Europeans used this name to refer to the Ethiopian monarch for many generations, and at the time of the mission, “Prester John” was Lebna Dengel (née Dawit, the Ethiopian form of “David”), who ruled from 1508 to 1540.

The missionaries spent six years in the country, and when they returned, Father Francisco Alvares wrote an invaluable account of their explorations. He spoke mostly about the religion and culture of the country, as well as his own tribulations. But sprinkled throughout his narrative are many morsels about food.

Alvares found that Ethiopians cultivated a wide variety of grains and vegetables, and he claimed that Ethiopians would trade almost anything for pepper. He described wots made spicy with cress, linseed, and in the case of the emperor, black pepper. In fact, 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. The fact that Alvares never mentions it further leads scholars to believe that it had not yet entered the Ethiopian diet.

Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, an Ethiopian botanist and scholar, says 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.” His 1984 essay, Some Important New World Plants in Ethiopia, notes that the Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his 18th Century account, specifically mentions Capsicum. Tewolde then reasonably concludes that “chili pepper was introduced into Ethiopia in the two and a half centuries from 1520 to 1770.”

Spices and more for sale at a market in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Spices and more for sale at a market in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Surveying Alvares’ work, Tewolde asserts: “If chili peppers were present in Ethiopia at the time, there is no doubt that the wot described would, as now, have been made from this plant rather than from cress seed, and Alvares would have noted that. He also notes that, in Lebna Dengel’s kitchen, it was black pepper that was used and not cress seed. James Bruce, writing about Ethiopia in 1769 to 1771, mentions chili pepper by the name of cayenne pepper which, mixed with black pepper, was used in spicing raw meat.”

Tewolde even reflects on the similarity between papere, the word for pepper in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, and the more recent berbere.

In his 2009 essay, A Brief History of Ethiopian Spices, Fekadu Fullas goes way, way back to define “Ethiopia,” citing references to spices as long ago as the 28th Century B.C. But the ancient people of that era used the Greek word “Ethiopia” – meaning “burnt face” – to refer to darker-skinned cultures from African to India, so some of this isn’t too helpful in tracing the emergence of spices in the Ethiopia we know today.

Fekadu does include a list of modern Ethiopian spices and their countries of origin. Among the spices of African origin, he lists onion, garlic, fenugreek, coriander and korarima, the Ethiopian cardamom. Chili pepper, he says, came from Anglo-European visitors, and South Asian cultures contributed ginger, clove, black pepper, basil and nutmeg. West Asian cultures gave Ethiopia mustard and cress early in its history (back in the day of Aksum), and cumin and rue later in its history, although Fekadu doesn’t define “early” and “late” with years or centuries.

Niter kibe simmering with spices

Niter kibe simmering with spices

And he notes: “In a study published in Bioscience, it was indicated that Ethiopia is one of the 10 countries in the world where spices are used the most, in particular in meat-based recipes.”

In 2010, the Ethiopian Ministry of Trade published a report, The Spice Sub-Sector in Ethiopia, that examined spice exports in the country and laid out a detailed plan for increasing it.

“Spice trade is a commercial activity since antiquity and is perhaps among the very few pioneer commodities traded internationally,” the report says. “During the ancient Ethiopia kingdoms, notably Aksum, Ethiopia was very much involved in spice trade, and spice was perhaps among the top few pioneer export commodities Ethiopia traded internationally by then. Ethiopia was on the ancient spice trail from India and was visited by Arabian and Persian spice traders who left their mark on the cuisine.”

And yet, only 2 percent of Ethiopian exports are spices, and more than 80 percent of the country’s spice harvest is used domestically. “Despite Ethiopia’s long history in spice trade, [exports] remain minimal and low,” the report says. “Except pepper (Capsicum annum), spice cultivation is traditional, with no improved seed or planting material, and it is not market oriented. The contribution of spice to the national economy is not significant.” A market profile of Ethiopian spices examines all of this.

Ethiopia’s meat industry today accounts for about 55 percent of the country’s spice consumption, the retail sector for 35 percent, and the catering sector for 10 percent. The most common type of spice grown is the chili pepper, usually just called “pepper” by Ethiopians: the Marekofana variety, long and dark red in appearance, has a 50,000 rating on the Scoville scale that rates the heat of peppers, and the Mitmita pepper is small, red and even hotter. These are the varieties that today become berbere and mitmita in Ethiopia.

Spice exports don't make up a significant part of the Ethiopian economy, the government reports.

Spice exports don’t make up a significant part of the Ethiopian economy, the government reports.

In a 2014 study, a group of four scholars looked at spices grown in the home gardens in the Ethiopian highlands. They identified six key spices and found that “the species being grown in home gardens of nearby villages, their cultivation, marketing, preparation of the spice mixes and dishes, are traditional to the women only. Apart from their socio-economic importance,” the study says, “these wild herbs have bright potential for poverty alleviation, improved women’s contribution to family income, and small farmers’ adaptability to climate change.”

Spices are so integral to Ethiopian cuisine and culture that scholars around the world study their history, cultivation and use. The Netherlands-African Business Council has even issued a fact sheet about the key spices of Ethiopian agriculture and cuisine. “Spices are essential oils that give foods and beverages flavor, aroma and sometimes color,” the report says. “The term spice refers to any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning, be it the seed, leaves, bark or flowers. They can be marketed whole, ground to a powder or in the form of essential oils and oleoresins.”

And for a thorough study of spices in Ethiopia, have a look at P.C.M. Jansen’s 338-page Spices, Condiments and Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia. He published the book in 1981, but things probably haven’t changed all that much in the use and classification of spices in Ethiopia. “The words ‘spices’ and ‘condiments’ are used here to denote plants or plant products that are used to flavor food or beverages before, during or after their preparation,” Jansen writes. His book – which includes many photographs and illustrations – rounds up all the familiar spices and looks at them in microscopic scientific detail.

Worku Abebe published an essay in 2006 that discusses some of the health benefits of the spices found in Ethiopian cuisine, although he does say that “some of the information presented remains to be further established.”

The peppers used in berbere and mitmita, Worku says, can relieve spasms, increase circulation, reduce cholesterol, serve as an anti-coagulant, and help soothe a peptic ulcer. Dembelal (coriander) helps with flatulence and cramps, relieves indigestion, and can serve as an aphrodisiac. Abish (fenugreek) will lower blood glucose and cholesterol, relieve indigestion and gastritis, soothe gum abscesses, boils, burns and ulcers, and induce milk production. Tiqur azmud (black cumin) relieves spasms, is an anti-microbial and a diuretic, and also helps prevent cancer. Erd (turmeric) is an anti-oxidant, an anti-inflammatory (even for arthritis), and can lower cholesterol and help with stomach pains or indigestion.

“The information contained in this article is far from complete,” Worku concludes, very wisely, “and readers are encouraged to conduct their own search for a better understanding of the health effects of spices.”

Excellent advice. Or better yet, just eat a lot of Ethiopian food and see how good it makes you feel inside.

Harry Kloman

University of Pittsburgh

Almaz Dama of Dama Ethiopian restaurant in Arlington, Va., talks about Ethiopian spices.