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Berbere is famed chef Marcus Samuelsson’s go-to spice blend

Berbere is Ethiopian, but Chef Marcus Samuelsson – whose restaurant, Red Rooster part of the buzz and hum that is Harlem – didn’t use it until he became a professional chef, because it wasn’t a familiar blend in the home of his Swedish adoptive parents.

But when he did taste it, there was a definite a-ha moment for the culinary genius who guests as a judge on “Chopped” and handily won the second season of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.”

“The first time I had these spices together, they really spoke to me,” he said in a recent issue of Tasting Table.

Berbere – while is unique to each cook who creates it – is a mix of coriander, fenugreek, black peppercorns, allspice berries, cardamom pods and cloves, all of which are toasted until the aroma fills the kitchen – a cast-iron pan is ideal for this step, and will yield the best results – then crushed with a mix of dried onion and red chile flakes.

“Every family makes their own berbere and dries it in the sun,” said Samuelsson of the spice’s Ethiopian roots.

The berbere will vary depending on the heat of the sun during the drying process, the amount of certain ingredients added – some versions include garlic – and other distinguishing factors that make berbere somewhat like American apple pie, which can differ from house to house based on time-honored recipes, some of which include a dash of ginger, others a splash of bourbon to round out the sweetness of the apples.

Berbere is special because of the blend of sweet, savory and spicy ingredients, which together tame the heat while adding hints of floral and citrus notes.

“All the spices in there make sense together. It’s about making a spice blend that’s really, really well balanced,” Samuelsson told Tasting Table.

Some of Marcus Samuelsson’s favorite ways to use berbere:

  • In stews at the start of the cooking process to bring depth of flavor to the sauce. The flavors meld with the meat and veggies while bringing a smoky flavor to the mix.
  • On fruit before serving, to balance the sweetness and add an element of surprise. He mixes fermented honey with berbere, then drizzles it over chopped pineapple, finishing with coarse salt (Flaky Maldon would be nice here.)
  • On poke – either salmon or tuna – to give the Hawaiian-inspired dish a touch of African flavor. He tosses sashimi-quality fish with fish sauce and lime juice – which gives it a sear – then tops it with berbere before tossing it again. He serves it with chips. Homemade wonton chips would be a perfect pairing.

It also makes a great dry rub for ribs, a surprise flavor in mac and cheese or an added spice blend for the ground meat in tacos to add depth of flavor, according to the experts at the Food Network.

Ethiopian Chicken with Lentils

If you want to go traditional, this is the recipe that will bring the flavors of Ethiopia to life in your kitchen.


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups onion, diced
  • 1 cup diced carrot
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 cup whole lentils
  • 3 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 cup diced tomato, canned or fresh with skins and seeds removed *
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons berbere spice blend
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Italian flat-leaf parsley for garnish


  • 6 chicken thighs (skin-on)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons berbere spice blend
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a Dutch oven, heat olive oil and sauté onion, carrots, garlic and ginger until onions are translucent and carrots are tender, about seven minutes. Add the berbere spice blend and sauté for two to three minutes to bring out the fragrance of the spices.

Add the lentils, vegetable stock tomatoes and salt and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover and reduce heat, allowing the lentils to simmer about 30 minutes, until they are still slightly firm, or al dente.

Meanwhile, generously salt and pepper chicken on all sides,  Add 1 cup lentils, 1 cup diced tomatoes, 1 tsp salt and 3 cups water, bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low and let cook until al dente, about 30 minutes.

CHEF-WORTHY NOTE: To peel and seed tomatoes, toss tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds, then transfer them to a bowl of ice water to shock them. Peels will slip off easily. To seed them, quarter tomatoes, gently cut seeds away from fruit and discard. Dice tomatoes the same size as your onions for uniform cooking and appearance.

Making sure chicken thighs are dry, salt and pepper both sides generously, then rub them with berbere spice blend.

Heat Salt all sides of chicken with salt and pepper

Generously rub each piece with some Berbere Spice Mix.

Heat olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. When skillet is hot, place the chicken skin side down and sear it until it is golden brown and crispy, about 8 minutes. Turn chicken over and reduce heat to medium, searing the bottom of the thighs for two to three minutes.

Place the chicken in the oven and bake until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, about 15 minutes.

Serve chicken over lentils, and garnish with minced flat-leaf parsley.

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