Seasonings: Monica Bhide shares tips for using berbere and a recipe for Doro Wat (Ethiopian stewed chicken).

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J.M. Hirsch first tried the Ethiopian spice blend berbere nearly 20 years ago in North Carolina.

Ever since, “I’ve been passionate about Ethiopian food,” said the author of “High Flavor, Low Labor: Real Food for Real Life” (Ballantine, 2010). “I love injera, the spongy flatbread used instead of utensils to scoop up and eat the rich and spicy thick stews that form the backbone of the cuisine.”

The stews often derive their flavor from berbere, which Hirsch explains is a heady mix of garlic, fenugreek, allspice, red pepper, ginger, chilies, coriander, cinnamon, black pepper and more. The flavor is at once spicy, sweet and citrusy. The seasoning gives doro wat — a chicken stew that is all but Ethiopia’s national dish — its deep red color and delicious pungency.

An Internet search showed that berbere recipes vary a lot. Hirsch said he uses store-bought blends that work well.

He stores berbere in a special spice cabinet built into a defunct chimney in his kitchen. It does a good job of keeping his spices cool and dark, away from heat, light and moisture (enemies of spices in general).

Like most dry seasonings, berbere benefits from heat and fat. When Hirsch makes doro wat, the berbere and other seasonings go in the pot first, along with oil and an onion. A few minutes over medium-high heat amplifies the best in the seasonings.

Hirsch suggests using the spice mix in:

Doro wat, the one-pot chicken dinner. Its flavors are complex, but not overwhelmingly spicy.

Meatballs. Mash together ground beef or turkey, an egg, some breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and a tablespoon or so of berbere. Form meatballs, then bake.

A rub. Mix berbere with just enough olive oil to form a paste. Rub it on chicken breasts. Grill them over low heat or slice them into thin cutlets and briefly pan-fry in butter.

Dip. Whisk berbere into a blend of sour cream and plain Greek-style yogurt. Use it as vegetable dip or serve it, instead of yogurt sauce, with grilled meats or falafel.

Pizza topping. Combine three parts olive oil to one part berbere. Toss in some minced fresh garlice. Brush this mixture over an unbaked pizza crust. Top it with grated manchego — the Spanish sheep’s milk cheese — and bake.

Serve doro wat with warm pita or flatbread. Diners scoop up most Ethiopian foods, even stews, with bread, not utensils. The following recipe is adapted from Hirsch’s book, “High Flavor, Low Labor.”


Makes: 4 servings

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks

Juice of 1 lemon

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons ghee or butter

2 medium yellow onions, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon ground fenugreek

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

2 tablespoons berbere

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

¼ cup red wine

¾ cup water

Ground black pepper

Place the chicken on a large plate. Drizzle it with lemon juice, then sprinkle with salt. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the ghee. Add onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek, cardamom, nutmeg, berbere and smoked paprika. Saute until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine and water, mix well, and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken, turning to coat, and return to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.

Uncover and simmer for another 3 minutes to reduce the sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Monica Bhide: