Cutting for Stone, and berbere

Ethiopian berbere. Photo taken in Kent, Ohio w...
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Because I read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese last summer, and loved it so much that I insist on dragging it across country with me, just to have it close by, it has had at least one unexpected effect on me: namely, my cooking.

The book is not about cooking; food is mentioned in the due course of things, but no more than you might expect. One thing mentioned many times: berbere. Berbere is not a spice, but a mix of spices. It is heavily used in Ethiopian cooking, especially in a common chicken stew called doro wat.

And so, I wanted some. I looked in the ethnic cooking sections of grocery stores both regular and organic. I looked online and in spice and cookware stores: no berbere. Nobody even to tell me how to pronounce the word, since I know no Amharic. But lo and behold, Epicurious has a recipe, a small and little-noticed and unreviewed one but enough.

The directions are simple:

  • get thus-and-such bunch of spices
  • pour in bowl and mix

With directions that easy, I am not even sure that it qualifies as a recipe, but there it is. One thing it is not: ecologically friendly, at least in the ingredients I chose. The pepper came from Turkey and the cinnamon from Vietnam. That has got to be a huge carbon footprint, getting those things into my humble (?) American neighborhood.

However, the berbere is wonderful, and I used some immediately. I put almost a teaspoon into a jar of spaghetti sauce I was heating up on the stove, and it was the best spaghetti sauce I ever ate. So there: Ethiopian pasta. Can’t get better than that. I plan to figure out a vegetarian version of doro wat, if that is possible. And I promise to learn how to pronounce the word.

Yup, literature broadens my horizons.

2 thoughts on “Cutting for Stone, and berbere

  1. It’s pronounced like bear-bear-ray (grizzly-grizzly-fish) but with a little of the d sound to the r’s like they are said in Spanish. There are lots of vegetarian dishes in Ethiopian cooking. My favorite and the most common is misr wat which is made with red lentils.

  2. Thanks Julia! I thought that was it.

    I will try to find a misr wat recipe now. My husband is a vegetarian, and loves this spice mix so much that he has taken to putting it on anything short of fruit or ice cream.

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