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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 Ethiopianspices.com. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.