Fragrant spices of Ethiopian Jews make foods zing

One of the joys of being a Jewish food writer is exploring the different food ways and ingredients of Jews around the world. One of my favorites is the food and spices of the Ethiopian Jews, the ancient community known as the Beta Israel.

Berbere is a staple spice of the Beta Israel and other Ethiopians. It is a fragrant mix of ground chili peppers and about a dozen other ground spices, including cardamom, cinnamon and black peppercorns.

Berbere is what makes the recipes below zing, and there is no good substitute. Luckily, the seasoning has become much more available in bulk at spice shops and international food stores, as well as packaged in small bags and boxes in gourmet and specialty markets. It is also sold online. Kosher brands are available.

I keep a large jar of the mix in my refrigerator and often use it to spice nontraditional dishes, such as this Berbere-Spiced Roasted Cauliflower, which I use as a side dish for chicken.

The Lentil Stew with Ethiopian Flavors is my adaption of an Ethiopian wat (sometimes spelled wot). The technique of adding onions before oil is traditional.

Every batch of berbere seems to vary in heat and spiciness, so if you are new to the spice mix or prefer dishes less fiery, use the lesser amounts indicated in the recipes.

Berbere-Spiced Roasted Cauliflower

Serves 4

1/4 cup oil plus extra for pan

2-21/2 lbs. whole cauliflower

2 tsp.-1 Tbs. berbere, or to taste

2 cups chopped red onion

15 oz. can crushed tomatoes

2-3 Tbs. chopped parsley or cilantro

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil. Grease foil. Trim and core cauliflower. Cut into clusters of florets 11/2-2 inches across, about 5-6 cups. Put 1/4 cup oil in large bowl. Stir in berbere. Add cauliflower and red onion. Mix well. Stir in tomatoes. Pour onto prepared baking sheet.

Roast about 45-55 minutes, using a spatula to turn occasionally, until cauliflower is tender and vegetables are charred. Remove from pan, scrapping up browned-on bits, sprinkle with parsley and serve hot, warm or room temperature.

Lentil Stew with Ethiopian Flavors

Serves 6

2 red onions, finely chopped

Hot water as needed

2 Tbs. minced garlic

4 Tbs. tomato paste

1/3 to 1/2 cup berbere, or to taste

1/4 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

1/2 cup olive oil

4 cups water

1 lb. lentils (see note below)

1/8 tsp. ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. salt

In a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, add onions (with no oil or other fats). Cook until translucent and soft, about 5-10 minutes. Stir as needed. Add 1 Tbs. hot water if browning. Do not let brown or burn.

Add garlic and 2 Tbs. tomato paste. Stir well and cook for a few minutes. Add berbere, ginger and cardamom. Stir and sauté for 5 minutes, adding hot water as needed to keep from sticking or burning. Add oil, stir well, cook for 5 minutes. Add lentils, mix well. Add 4 cups water. Bring to simmer. Cover and simmer until lentils are soft and falling apart, about 35-45 minutes.

Sauce should be thick and not at all soupy, but add hot water if needed. Add remaining tomato paste, pepper and salt. Mix well. Let cook a few more minutes. Taste and correct seasoning. Serve with flat bread, millet or rice.

Note: I usually use the bagged, green-brown lentils from the supermarket. The recipe also works with quicker-cooking red lentils.


Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is Contact her at [email protected].