Berbere is a spice blend that is an essential part of Ethiopian cuisine. It is an eclectic medley of spices that vary depending on who’s doing the cooking and what’s being cooked. Although the ingredients tend to vary, they always come together to create a fiery red, vibrant spice mix that brings dishes to life. Ethiopians add berbere to curries, soups, meat, and their national dish chicken stew (doro wat).
As Ethiopian cooking increases in popularity in the United States, more recipes are popping up that call for berbere. Although you may not find the spice blend in your local supermarket that doesn’t need to stop you finishing the dish. Pick a berbere substitute from the list we’ve created below and get cooking!
What’s A Good Berbere Substitute?
1. Ras el hanout
Ras el hanout, like berbere, is a melange of flavor that doesn’t enforce strict rules on what goes into it. However, it usually contains a few dominant spices that can also be found in berbere. To start with, there are dried chili pepper flakes along with sweet and hot paprika so it’s going to be red and spicy hot. Ras el hanout also contains the warming, mildly sweet flavors of cinnamon, mace, cloves, and cardamom – spices you’d often find in desserts, and also berbere.
Like berbere, Ras el hanout is another popular spice blend in North African cooking. It adds pungent heat to any food that berbere is added to. Although a local Ethiopian may know what you’re up to when you substitute ras el hanout for berbere, no one else will.
Buy this spice from most well-stocked supermarkets, specialist spice dealers, or online.
Baharat is a lot easier to find in stores, than tsire, in the spice section. This spice blend is a popular street food seasoning found in the Middle East. It is used as a general seasoning and is delicious added to meatballs or burger patties. Braises, marinades, and stews all benefit from this spice mix.
Common ingredients include paprika, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, peppercorns, and nutmeg. To make it more “berberish” simply toss in a liberal scoop of chili flakes and cayenne powder and you’ve got an authentic backup option.
3. Garam masala
Garam masala is used popular spice blend used in Indian cuisine for seasoning meat, and adding warmth and sweetness to soups, lentil dishes, and curries. This option is a good alternative to berbere if you’re looking for lots of flavor without the heat. Those who don’t enjoy hot food will find garam masala a lot more pleasant.
Although garam masala is a milder flavor, it still pops with flavor and is deliciously aromatic. Coriander, turmeric and cumin combine with a range of other spices to create a flavor combo that makes it worthy of this list.
4. Cayenne pepper
Cayenne is a simple substitute for berbere in cooking and is likely to be the most accessible on this list. You’re probably wondering, how can one spice replace a blend which is usually made up of many ingredients. The answer is, it can’t. But Ethiopian cooking is all about being flexible and that’s why cayenne is okay.
Although cayenne pepper won’t provide the depth of flavor that comes from berbere, it will certainly mimic the vibrant color and spicy heat. Whatever you add it to, you’ll still get a delicious meal, especially if you toss in some fresh garlic and onion for extra taste.
You can pick up a jar of cayenne pepper from any spice section of the supermarket.
Tsire, aka suya, is more commonly used in West Africa to season dishes like beef kebabs and as a wonderful marinade. Its blend of spices commonly includes cloves, red pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. However, it won’t mimic the taste of berbere as it also included ground peanuts (or peanut butter) as a core ingredient.
You’re not going to create the same tasting food by adding tsire in place of berbere. This is a good choice for all those lovers of nut-based food. If you enjoy satay with some additional aromatic spice then you may well enjoy this option.
Tsire is a little more difficult to find in mainstream stores so you’ll probably need to buy online, visit a spice store, or simply make your own using common ingredients found in the United States and other Western countries.
6. Make your own
This may sound like too much work but it is actually a simple spice blend to make at home, using common ingredients. Here’s our suggested recipe which you can use as a dry mix or add it to oil to make a paste.
- ¼ cup paprika
- ½ cup red chili powder
- 2 tsp salt
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp ground fenugreek
- ½ tsp ground cardamom
- ½ tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp ground garlic powder
- Pinch of cloves
- Pinch of cinnamon
- Add all ingredients to a small bowl and stir until combined.
Larger spices like cloves should be ground finely in a mortar and pestle or spice mill.
Store berbere refrigerated in an airtight container or zip-lock bag for up to three months.
Where to Buy Berbere
Where you can find berbere will vary depending on the country you live in. If you’re in an area that’s high in Middle Eastern or Africans then there’s a better chance your local supermarket will stock it. Look in the spice aisle first and if you have no luck then try the international section. Any good spice specialist will stock all of the spices listed above. As a final option, a quick search online will produce a wide range of sellers offering some mouth-watering versions of these spice blends.
Berbere should be stored in an airtight container or ziplock bag in the pantry or cupboard for up to 12 months. The spices will last longer, but the ingredients will start to lose their potency over time.
- Berbere can be used as a dry spice or can be added to oil or other liquids to make a paste.
- It is the flavoring “backbone” in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and other surrounding East African countries.
- In Amharic, barbare means “hot” or “pepper”.
- Berbere will vary from house to house in Ethiopia. It also can vary depending on the dish it is used in.
If you’re looking to replace berbere is your cooking then ras el hanout, baharat, or garam masala are all good options. For a simpler seasoning option, add cayenne pepper which will add heat without the additional flavors which may not appeal to you.
You can use tsire, but it has a much different flavor profile and would be a good option if you don’t enjoy berbere and want a change.
Finally, making your berbere is as easy as tossing together some common spices found in most well-stocked spice racks. It is a great option because you can leave out spices that you don’t enjoy using in savory food. Cinnamon isn’t your idea of a good addition to meat? Leave it off! That’s the beauty of berbere, you can be creative without losing the authenticity of the dish.