I have the good fortune to live within five minutes of two Ethiopian restaurants with a few more within fifteen minutes. Without a doubt, the distinctly Ethiopian spice mixes are what got me hooked on Ethiopian food. The use of cardamom in Ethiopian spice mixes is probably my favorite aspect of Ethiopian flavors as it makes things pop. I’d never really tasted anything savory with cardamom in it, so it was also new and exciting. My previous cardamom experience was basically limited to finding it in kheer, and the fact that it had cardamom in it was the main reason why I enjoy kheer so much.
Probably the two most ubiquitous Ethiopian spice mixes are berbere and mitmita, both of which contain cardamom. Many of the wats found in Ethiopian cuisine use berbere as the base of their flavor and mitmita is the primary spice mix found in my favorite Ethiopian dish: kitfo.
Having a hankering for some Ethiopian flavors, I decided to start with the basics and make my own berbere. I’m a big proponent roasting whole spices and grinding them fresh whenever feasible. The extra five minutes spent doing this definitely pays off.
The berbere that I made consisted of cardamom, black peppercorn, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek seeds, dried red chilies, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, star anise, paprika, turmeric, and ginger. The use of star anise is probably not traditionally Ethiopian, but I prefer star anise over cloves so I replaced half of the recipe’s cloves with star anise. It’s hard to describe what berbere tastes like since there are so many spices that go into the mix, but it’s definitely unique.
The berbere can be rubbed on meats and left to marinate overnight just like any other spice mixture. I've had good results with my freshly roasted and ground berbere on things that are cooked with dry heat relatively quickly such as grilled chicken. Things that have been braised for a long time such as my version of an Ethiopian wat using goat have worked equally well. Hopefully my berbere-spiced goat wat will be featured in the near future.