Berbere paste in my new mortar and pestle

19 June 2012

Meet the newest member of my family:

We combed through most of the stores in Chinatown before finding it: an 8″ solid granite mortar and pestle. There was a sticker on it that said “Made in Thailand”. All of my readings pointed to Thai granite mortar and pestles as being the most well made, economical and effective method for grinding spices. Being in Canada, “economical” is a somewhat relative term — this guy costed me $45 plus tax, while similar sized granite mortars and pestles allegedly go for $20 in American Chinatowns. But a suribachi costs $70 here (plus ~$8 or so for the surikogi) and the Bay sells a Cuisinart blade coffee grinder for $50, about twice what it retails for in the U.S., so I guess $45 is pretty good.

With this in our kitchen, I am finally able to venture into a new cuisine that I’ve been wanting to try making at home for a long time: Ethiopian food.

Berbere paste recipe 

  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp fenugreek
  • 1 tsp black peppercorn
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 1″ stick of cassia cinnamon
  • the seeds from 10 pods of cardamom

Roast the spices in a dry pan for 5 min on medium heat, then transfer to the mortal and pestle and grind to a fine powder.

  • 2 tbsp Hungarian paprika
  • 2 tbsp cayenne
  • 1 tbsp salt

Add these to the other ground spices and mix.

  • 1 small onion
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp grated fresh turmeric
  • 3 tbsp peanut oil

Finely chop the onion and garlic, then add it and the other ingredients listed above to the mixture in the mortar and pestle. Mix very thoroughly, using the pestle to crush the larger pieces of onion so that it becomes better incorporated. The mixture should be a thick paste by this time, as in the picture above.

  • 1 cup water

Add water and mix. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and cook on medium heat until it is reduced to a thick sauce, which should take roughly 30 minutes.

Despite the rather long list of ingredients, berbere paste was really fairly straightforward to make. The most labour-intensive step is the spice grinding, which took about 10 minutes and left a nice heat in my shoulder muscles afterwards. You could simplify that part by using an electric spice grinder. Personally I find that there is something relaxing about grinding spices by hand; humans have been doing it that way for centuries, after all. You could simplify it even more by buying pre-ground spices, but I really don’t recommend that — if you’ve ever smelled the difference between freshly ground spices and pre-ground, packaged ones, you’ll know that the freshly ground spices are always much stronger and more complex.

How to use the berbere paste? I have been using it with almost anything — cabbages, cauliflowers, lentils, fish, tofu, lamb. A splash of water, a tablespoon of berbere, long, slow cooking until all the ingredients are tender and melded into one flavour, a tiny drizzle of spice butter on top. Perfect food for this rainy June we’ve been having.

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