Berbere Is Marcus Samuelsson's Secret Weapon

How to use this perfectly balanced spice blend

Although Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, he didn't meet the Ethiopian spice blend known as berbere until long after he had been adopted, moved to Sweden and become a professional chef. "The first time I had these spices together," he says, "they really spoke to me."

And there's certainly a lot to speak about when it comes to berbere. Coriander, fenugreek, black peppercorns, allspice berries, cardamom pods and cloves are first toasted until fragrant, then crushed with dried onion and chile flakes, and ground into a fine powder (see the recipe).

"There's a level of terroir to it in Ethiopia," Samuelsson, of Red Rooster and Streetbird restaurants in New York's Harlem, says. "Every family makes their own berbere and dries it in the sun, so if you have a lot of sun, it will come out one way, and if you add a lot of garlic, another. Ethiopia is tribal, but berbere is found throughout the country."

While the recipe is endlessly adaptable, he presses the mind-set that "once you taste and understand it," berbere is a mild chile blend mellowed out with sweet and floral flavors, rather than one simply bursting with heat. This means it can be used in conjunction with a wide variety of ingredients and in various applications. Add it one tablespoon at a time at the beginning of the cooking process, and large chunks of meat slowly cook down into earthy, unctuous stews. Sprinkle a little berbere onto fish or fruit right before serving, and it's mild enough to add bright citrus notes and a hint of smoky heat to a dish without being overpowering.

"All the spices that we add in there make sense together. It's about making a spice blend that's really, really well balanced," Samuelsson schools.

In his restaurants and at home, Samuelsson uses berbere from first course to last, pulling the flavors of Ethiopia into dishes from all over the globe. Which is exactly how he wants more chefs and home cooks to use it, too.

Here are five of his favorite ways to get started.

Ricotta Toast with a Kick

For a familiar starter with a bit of a twist, toast up some sourdough bread, then layer it with a smear of ricotta, a sprinkle of berbere, a shaving of lemon zest and slices of avocado. "From the ricotta, you have the sour; the lemon gives you that zing; and the avocado gives richness. To spice it up so it's not too mellow, the berbere gives it a kick."

Warm Beef Tartare

"The texture of eating warm tartare is new for a lot of us, but it's sexy in a way, because it's smooth and silky," Samuelsson promises. For a super-simple tartare, brown some butter in a pan with a little berbere. Take the pan off the heat, then drop in cubed beef for 10 or so seconds, just until it's warm. "Do it outside on a hike," he suggests, like cooking over a wood fire, and "then eat it straight out of that pan with a piece of ripped bread and a little bit of salt. Berbere and smoke, that's when it really plays best."

A Simple Poke

Take sashimi-quality salmon or tuna, toss it with a touch of fish sauce and lime juice, and then finish it with a light coating of berbere to taste. Serve with chips, and it's "game on, in an American way." The various spices play up the fatty, rich flavor of the fish.

A Smoky Rack of Lamb

Berbere finds "the perfect marriage with cheese, mustard, egg yolk, and maybe rosemary or thyme." Whisk a few egg yolks together with some whole-grain mustard, fresh herbs, soft cheese and berbere, and then thoroughly coat a rack of lamb. Roast at 400 degrees for 16 to 17 minutes, or grill outside. While the rack rests, whisk the drippings with oil and more berbere, "and that's your dip. You don't need any more sauce. The berbere gets smoky, and the rack crust gets even smokier. You can't go wrong."

A Bright Fruit Finish

For a simple, cleansing dessert after a heavy meal, whisk some fermented honey with berbere, drizzle it over chopped pineapple and finish with a little coarse salt. The warm flavors and smoke play up the fermentation in the honey, and together with the acidity of pineapple help soothe an extra-full stomach while enjoying a touch of something sweet.