In the berbere pepper section of Shola market, the air is on fire. Every breath burns. Everyone is coughing and sneezing. By the end of our time there, my nose is running and my throat stings. But it’s worth it.
Berbere Peppers in Shola Market
Berbere powder is the backbone of Ethiopian cuisine. It is the central ingredient in almost every Ethiopian stew and is mixed with liquid (water, wine, beer or tej) to make an irresistible chili paste (awaze) for roasted or raw meats. In just a small pot of lentil or meat stew, for a portion for four to five people, up to a cup of berbere powder is used.
What is berbere and what makes is so special?
Berbere is a mix of dried chili peppers and spices. Everyone has a different variation to how they make it and these variations are often highly secretive. Typically, an individual or a restaurant will buy large sacks of berbere peppers once a year and dry them in the hot sun with the other components. Depending on the quantity being made, the peppers and other spices are then brought to a mill to be ground into a powder. Otherwise, it’s the domestic workers or the kitchen staff who grind everything, using a mortal and pestle.
This is why the quality and taste of food varies so much from restaurant to restaurant and from home to home. Everyone is making their own berbere.
We traveled to Shola market this week with Lemlem (co-founder Eliza’s Ethiopian mom) to buy the ingredients for her annual batch of berbere.
The key ingredient in berbere is berbere chili peppers. The peppers are sold for roughly 50 birr a kilo ($2.50 USD). The best berbere has thick skin. And according to the woman we bought from, the best berbere comes from the greater Butajira area – about 130km directly south of Addis.
Lemlem with Fresh Beso Bela
We wandered the aisles thumbing the berbere peppers until Lemlem decided which one was the best quality.
Lemlem bought one feresula of berbere. Feresula was the measurement used before kilos and refers to the plastic sacks you often see being carried by horses or donkeys. ‘Feres’ means horse in Amharic, so you have to guess the origin of the word means something like ‘horse load’. One Feresula is 17 kilos of berbere peppers.
As soon as the shopkeeper started loading peppers into the bag we were bombarded with men selling fresh herbs that are a traditional ingredient in the berbere mix. First came beso bela – African Basil. The leaves are stripped from the stems and dried.
Next came tenadem (Rue) buds. This is an extremely fragrant herb with a milky citrusy smell (fresh leaves are used sometimes during traditional coffee ceremonies to flavor the dark coffee).
Each shop selling berbere also sells the other dried herbs and the owner and clients always quibble over how much of each is needed for a feresula. Lemlem settled on 3 kilos of korerima (Ethiopian cardamom), 1 kilo of black fenugreek, 1 kilo of white fenugreek, 1 kilo of dried African Basil, 1 kilo of abish, ½ kilo of thyme, 4 kilos of garlic (before it is peeled and dried), and 1 kilo of ginger.
Tenadem Flower Buds
Our dried peppers and herbs on the way to the car.
Everything was bagged up and portered to the car.
Knowing someone who makes their own spice mixes is critical for anyone living in Addis trying to cook up authentic Ethiopian cuisine. The store bought mixes are just not the same.