Say the words, ‘Berber food,’ here in the States, and you’ll get many a blank stare. That unfamiliarity isn’t entirely unwarranted. The Amazigh, AKA Berber, people are an ethnic group from North Africa, who today live predominantly in the countries that encompass the top of that continent, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. There are robust Berber expat communities in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands,and Canada, which means their influence and food has spread, but here in the U.S.A., not so much. It’s time, therefore, for Berbere and Berber Stew.
Berber cuisine is ancient, in the truest sense of the word. Layered, complex, spicy, and delightfully sophisticated, it has changed very little over thousands of years. That said, it’s difficult to pin down, because it is so closely tied to the terroir of each Berber population. To the Zayanes, who live around the Atlas Mountains of central Morocco, it’s game, sheep’s milk, goat cheese, butter, corn, barley, honey, and butter. To a Tunisian or Algerian Berber, its more likely tajine, couscous, mergeuz, Harrisa, or labladi. In any iteration, it’s amazing food, rich, cultured, and redolent of its past. While we might not be familiar with the Berbers, history is – They’ve inhabited the Maghreb since 10,000 BC, and they’ve been cooking stunningly good food ever since.
Certainly there are Berber dishes we know – Those Tunisian and Algerian goodies I mentioned above are fairly ubiquitous – Couscous, Mergeuz, and Tajines can be found much more often than they would have even a decade ago. There’s far more that is common to us, we’ve just not associated the root cuisine until recently. For instance, it’s arguable that specialized ovens designed for roasting whole critters originated with the Berbers – Mechoui, whole lamb barbecue, has branched out here in techniques from the Cuban cana china, to pit barbecue. Even the meat pie or pastie has ancient Berber roots in the sublime pastilla. Our only foray here at UrbanMonique into Berber cuisine came with the post on Moghrabia, which was sublimely delicious, and a ball to discover. Yet that dish didn’t quite hit the mark for what I feel should have been done for a first Berber post – It didn’t include the amazing namesake spice blend, Berbere. I aim to rectify that herein.
Berbere is a word shared by Amharic and Tigrinya speakers, both of which are Semitic languages common to Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of the African Horn. Like so many signature blends, it’s hard to pin a definitive version – Everybody makes one, and theirs is best. Generally, the blend will include heat from chiles, with some combination of ginger, cardamom, fenugreek, and nutmeg/clove/cinnamon. Keep in mind that, back in the days of the silk and spice roads, this is where many of these rare delights came from, and they are still grown and used heavily, along with some very localized specialties. My favorite local spice is Long Pepper, which you can get quite easily these days – It has notable more depth and heat than Black Pepper, with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. Perhaps the most elusive of those local spices is Korarima, AKA Ethiopian, or false cardamom. That ethereal stuff is ubiquitous in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines, and locals will tell you that if you really want to cook authentic Berber food, no other cardamom will do.
The cardamoms hail from the ginger family, most from either the elettaria or amomum genera. The elettaria branch are the green, or true cardamoms, and the amomum the black, brown, white and red varieties. Korarima, Aframomum corrorima, is neither, hence the slight as ‘false’ cardamom. Korarima is a ginger family member as well, used not only in food, but as herbal remedy and tonic, and even blended with coffee. That’s as it should be, for the plants large brown pods grow well in coffee country. They’re harvested and then dried over open fires, which imparts a hint of sweet smoke to the grains. Locals say that any other cardamom just doesn’t quite cut it for Berbere. While I’ll say that, if you’re a spice nut like I am, you should try this stuff, be prepared – An ounce and a half will set you back about $15 plus postage for the good stuff. I’ll not disagree with the experts, although it’s hard to say exactly what makes Korarima different from other cardamoms – to me, it’s much more subtle and complex a flavor profile than any other version I’ve tried, less medicinal and warmer – Much like Long Pepper is a whole ‘nuther beast from Tellicherry. All that said, you certainly can make Berbere with any cardamom you have or like, and it’ll come out fine – Just don’t serve it to your Berber pals…
So, here’s our take on Berbere. It’s a heady mix of heat, warm, smoky, and herbal notes that goes great with dang near anything – Seriously, from scrambled eggs, to chicken, fish, beef, pork, tofu, and dang near any veggie you can name, it’s amazing stuff. And of course it’ll power the stew we’ll do next as well. This recipe will make about 1/3 Cup of spice blend, which will go quite a long way. You should know that true Berber spice blends are often pretty fiery, and this is no exception, (If you’ve ever tried or made genuine Harissa, you know I ain’t kiddin’). As such, you can reduce the chile volume accordingly, or use milder chiles if you prefer things a bit tamer. There are a myriad of versions of this blend, wet and dry, and they’re all fabulous – Take some time to poke around online and find some more to try, or even better, use this as a springboard to forge your own.
Berbere a la UrbanMonique
2-3 Tablespoons ground hot Chile Powder, (note – Not chili powder, just straight hot chiles!)
1 1/2 Tablespoons Smoked Sweet Paprika
1 Tablespoon Long Pepper
1 Tablespoon fine ground Sea Salt
1 teaspoon whole Coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground Garlic
1/2 teaspoon whole Ethiopian Cardamom, (Sub Black Cardamom if you wish)
1/2 teaspoon whole Fenugreek seed
1/4 teaspoon True Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Allspice
1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg
This recipe really wants you using whole spices, (which you aughta be doing whenever possible, anyway,) If you don’t have whole, forego the roasting step.
In a sauté pan over medium heat, add cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, and long pepper. Dry roast, stirring gently, until fragrant, about 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a spice grinder and process to a uniform powder.
Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl and combine thorough. Run the blend through a single mesh strainer if you like it uniform, thee wise, you can leave it rustic.
Store in an airtight glass jar, away from heat and sunlight. Will last for a couple of months if so stored.
Berber stew is a perfect intro to the joy that is North African cuisine. Simple on the surface, but with a finished taste that displays amazing depth and complexity, it’s a joy to make and eat. While you wouldn’t necessarily require the long cooking time with a protein switch, this would go equally well with chicken, pork, or even firm tofu. That said, the low and slow cooking of this dish will drive you nuts – Incredible smells for hours on end – Guaranteed you’ll be hungry when it’s done!
The truest form of this dish requires ghee, clarified butter, which I didn’t have when I decided to make it. Use ghee if you’ve got it, but if not, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than the rich, buttery notes avocado oil imparts. This recipe will feed four quite well.
Berber Beef Stew
1 Pound Stew Beef
2 Cups Stock, (Chicken, Beef, or Veggie)
1 small Sweet Onion
1 14 oz can crushed Tomatoes
2 cloves fresh Garlic
1-2 Tablespoons Berbere Spice Blend
2-3 Tablespoons Ghee or Avocado Oil
1-2 Tablespoons Wondra Flour
Trim stew meat to 1/2″ cubes.
Peel and trim onion, cut in half, then slice into very thin half rounds.
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
If you use crushed tomatoes, you’re good to go. If you got whole, process them to a rough Sauce with a stick blender.
Add beef and flour to a mixing bowl and evenly coat the beef.
In a Dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat, add a tablespoon of ghee or oil and allow to heat through.
Add beef and brown thoroughly, about 2-3 minutes a side. Allow caramelization to occur, look for that nice dark crust before you turn it. Remove beef to the mixing bowl when it’s nicely browned.
Add 2 tablespoons of oil or ghee to pan and allow to heat through.
Add the onions and sauté until golden brown, about 7-9 minutes.
Add garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 2 minutes.
Add Berbere to the veggies and stir to incorporate.
Add the stock and tomatoes, stir to incorporate, and allow to come to a simmer.
Add the beef and stir to incorporate.
Cover the pan and turn the heat as low as you can go – Go below the ‘Low’ mark, and keep going until your oven on light turns off, then backtrack just enough to light the light – That’s where you want to be for this dish. Cook low and slow, stirring occasionally, until beef is notably tender, about 3 hours.
Remove the lid and turn heat up to the low mark. Continue cooking until beef is fork tender, about 45 – 60 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes.
Serve with more Berbere spice, or Harissa, and freshly made flat bread. Although it’s not exactly authentic, this stuff is delicious over wild rice.
Ethiopian flatbread, Injera, is a delicious traditional staple, and a very cool take on sourdough. It takes a few days to prepare correctly, just as traditional sourdough needs an active starter to be ready to use. Again, I didn’t know I was gonna make this, so I didn’t do Injera. I therefore included the recipe for a nice Lebanese Man’ooshe flatbread you can make in about a hour. Injera is made with Teff, a very, very old species of annual Lovegrass that is an amazing source of nourishment, high in protein, carbohydrates, and fiber. It’s so prized in North Africa that most countries that grow it ban the export of the grain – It’s needed at home more than it is over here. That said, teff is now grown here in the states, and you can get excellent teff flour readily in most stores, or online. Locals say the lighter colored varieties are better than the dark, FYI.
1 1/2 Cups Teff Flour
2 Cups Water
Pinch of Sea Salt
2-3 Tablespoons Ghee or Avocado Oil for frying
In a clean, non-reactive mixing bowl, combine teff flour and water thoroughly to a smooth consistency, about like a thin pancake or crepe batter.
Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and allow to stand for 1 to as long as three days, until the mixture shows frothy bubbles on top and smells notably sour. If you keep a warm house, or have a proofing box, you can easily achieve overnight fermentation, but don’t be surprised if it takes a while.
With a whisk, add a pinch of salt and stir to incorporate. Repeat this until you can just barely taste the salt, then stop. Sourdough needs salt to properly control bacterial protein eating enzymes, and protect fragile gluten.
To a cast iron skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of ghee or oil and allow to heat through.
Pour in a ladle of batter to just cover the bottom of the skillet. You’ll employ the same technique as you would for crepes, but injera should be a bit thicker when you’re portioning.
When holes start to form on the bread and the edges lift free of the skillet, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool – They only get cooked on one side. Parchment between each will help them keep from sticking.
Serve right away.
Lebanese Flatbread – Man’ooshe
3 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Cup Water at about 75° F
2 teaspoons Sea Salt
1 teaspoon Honey
1 packet Dry Yeast
Extra Virgin Olive Oil for cooking
Combine water, yeast, and sugar in a mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate. Allow them to sit in a warm place until the yeast begins to work.
Add flour and salt and mix to incorporate – If the dough is too dry, add a little more water a Tablespoon at a time until you get to a moist but not sticky consistency.
Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise, about 30 – 45 minutes.
Remove the dough to a floured surface and cut it into 8 equal pieces with a pastry blade.
Use a floured rolling pin to roll each piece out to about 6″ or 7″ – About the size of a medium tortilla.
Lightly brush one side of each piece with olive oil
Set a flatbread into a cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Brush the exposed side with a little oil while the other cooks.
When the bread browns and gets puffy, it’s time to flip. When both sides are nicely browned, remove to cool and repeat the cooking process.
Eat right away, (as if you wouldn’t…)