Berbere: King of All Spices

About Eritrea - History & Culture

I was going home yesterday after work, listening to the music flowing through my earphones.

It actually was one of those days when I didn’t mind walking as the weather was so beautiful, but only to a person wearing a winter-coat. I was immersed in my thoughts and was smiling to myself every once in a while before I realized I had reached my neighborhood. Suddenly, I felt my stomach stinging and my mouth salivating. Ah, the aroma of the king of spices invading the streets, berbere.

Upon reaching home, the first thing I did was sprint towards the kitchen. So much for fighting to get back in shape! The whole concept of dieting was thrown out the window. The amount of food I consumed within a fraction of minutes is strangely u n b e l i e v a b l e . The fiery heat of the Berbere – one of the most c ommo n seasonings in Eritrean cuisines -- mixed with other veggies and wrapped up in Injera – a large spongy pancake made from Taf -- created a bitter, hot and extremely tasty fusion on my taste buds but I wouldn’t dare stop for a chug of cold-water.

Berbere is a Tigrigna word for a seasoning that is a mix of spices used in making Eritrean cuisine, especially Zhigni , a meat stew. Berbere has dried spices with innumerable properties: chilli (berbere), ginger, garlic cloves, coriander, dried onions, mustard seeds, nuts, nutmeg, black pepper, cumin, fenugreek, black seeds and other spices.

Berbere is used in many Eritrean dishes, and many even sprinkle it in pasta sauce. It is a wonderful all-purpose seasoning.

There is no accurate evidence as to when the spices that are used in making berbere were first introduced to the Horn of Africa. It is believed that berbere seasoning came about around 5 BC. Its arrival was at a point in history when the Red Sea route was made accessible for commercial purposes to the Silk Road. The Silk Road is both in reference to the terrestrial and maritime routes connecting Africa with Asia, the Middle East and Southern Europe. This gave the traders access to spices from China, which included black pepper and ginger. These and other spices used in making berbere found their way to merchants and from them to local cooks.

Berbere makes Tsebhi Zhigni (beef or mutton stew) or Tsebhi Derho (chicken stew) hot and spicy. A tourist once told me her first experience eating Tsebhi Zhigni, and her exact words were, “It felt as if my taste-buds were throwing a party! Even though it stung I knew I would regret it later if I didn’t finish off my plate. It indeed was an exploding frenzy on my tongue.”

It has been confirmed that berbere seasoning has health benefits, which makes it essential in our diet. It contains various spices, each of which provides nutritious elements and helps treat ailments and keep us healthy. Here are some of the benefits of berbere.

Minerals: • Fenugreek has a great function in aiding our body to make use of the iron and copper in order to make h a e m o g l o b i n . The copper is also an antioxidant.

Vitamins: • Chili pepper, the fundamental ingredient of berbere, is abundant in Vitamins A and C. They are potent antioxidants that help protect the body from damaging free radicals. Vitamin A is also necessary for vision support and for a functioning immune system. Vitamin C’s also helps make serotonin as well as collagen, which the body uses to generate various tissues. The fenugreek in berbere is a rich source of riboflavin, which is also known as

vitamin B2. Our body uses riboflavin to maintain skin health and increase energy levels.

Cardiovascular • issues: Chili pepper reduces levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, thereby reducing the likelihood of heart attack and stroke.

Dietary fibre: • Fenugreek seeds are excellent sources of fibre, with a 100 g serving able to provide more than half of your daily requirement. Carom seeds and nigella seeds are both used in making berbere and are also excellent sources of fibre. Fibre is good for both cardiovascular and intestinal health.

Intestinal distress: • Ginger is a popular ingredient in berbere and one of its uses is as a remedy for gastrointestinal ailments. You can use ginger to treat flatulence and nausea. The chemical that gives ginger its pungent flavour is zinger one; it is an effective treatment for certain types of diarrhoea.

Respiratory ailments: • Ginger can induce sweating, which may help with the treatment of colds and flu. The high contents of vitamin A and C in chili peppers can also help to ward off infection.
By leaving the sauces to simmer over low heat for a prolonged time, berbere’s anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-infection, and antimicrobial and cough suppressant benefits can be attained. You will have yourself a meal to remember the whole day for berbere also leaves a stain and a bit of a spicy odour in the fingers and nails. I am no doctor but have been accustomed to meals garnished with berbere my whole life.