Introducing Berbere at Oaktown Spice Shop!

Introducing Berbere at Oaktown Spice Shop!

We are excited to introduce our newest spice blend, Berbere. A complex, spicy and aromatic blend of chiles and spices, Berbere is one of the essential components of Ethiopian cooking.

This blend has been a long time coming at Oaktown Spice Shop.

Here in the East Bay, we are lucky to live and work in a hub for Ethiopian immigrants. As a result, we can choose from a variety of delicious Ethiopian restaurants. We have had many fascinating conversations about spices with our Ethiopian customers and neighbors.

Also, because Oaklanders are so familiar with Ethiopian food — and because African cuisine has become more popular in general — we have heard a growing chorus of requests for a Berbere spice blend for the last couple of years.

Aside from Berbere, the other essential building block of Ethiopian cuisine is injera, a sour, raised flatbread made from teff flour. The texture is spongy and soft.

Being Mexican-American, I can't help but compare injera to a tortilla. Injera tastes and feels nothing like a tortilla, but it's used in a similar way. You tear off a piece of injera and use it as a utensil to scoop up a dollop of stew. 

John and I love to go to Enssarro, the Ethiopian restaurant just down the street from our shop on Grand Avenue. If we're in a group of four, we typically order one of the meat combination platters and one veggie.

Meats include Doro Wot, a saucy, spicy, slow-cooked chicken stew, or Ye Beg Wot, made with lamb. The veggie platter features Misr Wot, a red lentil stew made with Berbere and nitr qibe (spiced, clarified butter); and Atakilt Wot, a vegetable stew made with cabbage, onion, potatoes and carrots along with nitr qibe, ginger and turmeric.

When we sat down to develop our own Berbere spice blend, we quickly realized that creating a blend that came anywhere close to an authentic flavor would be a special challenge, both in terms of the ingredients and the process.

Ethiopian Lentil Stew (Misr Wot)
Ethiopian Lentil Stew (Misr Wot)

In Ethiopia, making authentic Berbere is a weeks-long endeavor steeped in cultural tradition. Each family has its own recipe. But the process is essentially the same.

The first step is to wash, dry, stem and seed the chiles. The chiles themselves, also called “Berbere,” are only available in Ethiopia. They are then sun-dried for days. Once dry, they are ground, sifted and blended together with fresh ginger, garlic and shallots.

Dried spices, such as fenugreek, koreima (“false cardamom”) and beso bila (“sacred basil”) are toasted or roasted before they are added to the mix. The wet paste is then sun-dried for days. Finally, the dried blend is ground again to a fine powder.

Our Ethiopian friends have told us that Ethiopian households use Berbere at every meal.

Spicy Ethiopian Lamb Stew
Spicy Ethiopian Lamb Stew

Because of the work and time involved and the importance of this spice blend to the country’s cuisine, Berbere is made in huge batches in Ethiopia, using tens or dozens of pounds of chiles at a time.

Without exception, every Ethiopian customer we’ve met gets her or his Berbere from a family source in Ethiopia. Matching the flavor of such authentically made Berbere would be impossible for a little Oakland spice shop.

But we wondered — how could we get close? We read and we researched. We reached out to find sources for new spices. We tried many variations, recipes and ingredients.

We learned that green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is a poor substitute for Ethiopian cardamom, also known as false cardamom or koreima (Aframomum corrorima). Similarly, basil and holy basil are too different in flavor from the sacred basil, also known as besobila, traditionally used in Berbere.

We finally hit a turning point when we were able to source Ethiopian koreima and besobila. Although we have not been able to find a source for the Berbere chiles, we were able to come as close as we could using a blend of our Mexican chile varieties.

The result is Oaktown Spice Shop Berbere — an intensely aromatic, spicy blend that we’d be happy to eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We've created two simple recipes to try at home: a version of Ethiopian Lentil Stew (Misr Wot) and a Spicy Ethiopian Lamb Stew, which is similar to Ye Beg Wot.

Our Berbere is still, of course, a shortcut. But it’s one we can get truly excited about.