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Berbere - the Eritrean paprika

March 31, 2019

Berbere - the Eritrean paprika

 In 1985/86 I spent a year in Eritrea on the East coast of Africa. Nestled between Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, directly across the Red Sea from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Eritrea had just reclaimed its independence after a gruelling battle with Ethiopia - a thirty-year tug of war, in an arid, sub-Saharan environment with geography ranging from below sea-level deserts to elevations reaching 2000 metres. This took a toll on the countries resources of all kinds.

These young women operated what was probably one of a very few mills that existed in the capital city Asmara. Situated in this city’s largest artisan market, this milling operation along with welders, basket makers, fabricators and recyclers of all kinds, served as a major contributor to the struggling economy of battered society. It was heartening to see pretty much anything that had been previously manufactured and used up, transformed into something else useful.

 Locals and farmers would bring their sun-dried hot peppers by the bag loads to be milled into a powder and used as a staple in primarily lentil based meals such as “addis” or “tsebhi birsen”. Addis is a simple but delicious blend of red lentils, onion, garlic and “berbere” (which along with spicy hot pepper powder contains chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek). I survived on this lentil dish two meals a day, six days of the week for an entire year. Only to be interrupted by spaghetti with onion sauce for Monday lunches because the other staple “injera” (a pancake/crepe-like flatbread) wasn’t made on Sundays.


Five years later I craved this dish “addis” and proceeded to grow my first collection of hot peppers and transform them into “berbere”,  and recreate this satisfying and possibly addictive one-bowl meal! This was perhaps the beginning of my continuing passion for hot peppers. Not that I’m a heat freak, I really don’t appreciate the kind of pepper heat that blinds your ability taste and steals the enjoyment of a meal, but there is something about peppers that acts as a flavour enhancer when used properly. Whether it’s a pinch of the spicy French “espelette” in a delicate sauce, or a tablespoon of “smoked paprika” in a hearty stew, or a dash of “salsa piquanté” on scrambled eggs, peppers can take a dish so easily to another level.

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