The Spice Trade

398px-SpicesindiaWe are nuts about spices. We always have been. Around 50 AD Pliny the Elder, referring to the spice trade, complained that “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.” I’m not sure how much a sestercius was worth, but fifty million of them must be a lot. In Britain in the 17th century, cloves were worth their weight in gold (now, I like cloves, but I don’t like them that much).

There it was. One side of the world had wealth, empire, armadas, and fabulously bland food. The other side of the world had spices – those little dried flower pods and seeds and barks, free for the taking off the very trees. A deal was struck, and cuisine was saved.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let me explain that this is My Week of Eating Chicken. I don’t actually adore chicken. In fact I think it’s the third blandest meat there is (after turkey and fugu, the toxic pufferfish the Japanese pretend to like). The blandest cut of this whole bland bird is the breast. The only appeal of a chicken breast lies in its potential as a vehicle for the sauce.

However, yesterday I was at my farmers market, marveling at the few proud Olympians who braved the wind and rain to stand around in wools hats and gloves for the sake of buying the last of the season’s fruits and vegetables. I had some notion about making yakitori, which a Japanese dish involving chickens and leeks, and so I bought a couple of chicken breasts. Maybe it was end of the season for chickens, too, I don’t know, but my couple of chicken breasts were the size of footballs. That’s four meals for me and my wife. All I could do was devote the week to discovering the most interesting things I could do with chicken breast.

Goofing around, looking at the history of the domesticated fowl on Wikipedia, I happened upon a link to Ethiopian cuisine. I’ve only eaten Ethiopian food once, in a restaurant in Berkeley, and I had a notion it was entirely vegetarian and eaten without plates using only the right hand, or something. Turns out I was wrong about the vegetarianism! I learned about a ubiquitous stew called wat, and, based only on Wikipedia’s terse description, determined to recreate this dish myself.

The immediately interesting thing about wat was it immediately required two ingredients I didn’t have but could make myself: niter kibbeh, which is spiced, clarified butter, and berberé (not to be confused with beriberi), which is a fiery spice paste. My wife bravely volunteered to go out in the rain to the supermarket to collect the couple of ingredients we lacked (or, possibly, to escape a tiny apartment occupied by a man raving about chicken), and I set to work clarifying some butter.

Before we get into this rather long and involved description, let me inspire you by saying that my chicken wat was one of the finest things I have eaten in a long time, and berberé was instantly my favorite spice paste. I wanted to eat it on crackers.

Niter Kibbeh (Ethiopian Spiced Butter)

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 minced garlic clove

1 tsp chopped ginger

½ tsp turmeric

1 cardamom pod

¼ cinnamon stick

1 clove

dash nutmeg

Butter, unclarified

Butter, unclarified

Put all the ingredients in a pyrex measuring jug, and put it in a 350° oven for about half an hour. This is by far the easiest way I know to clarify butter. First the butter will melt and milk solids will settle out like white foam thoughout the liquid. After a while the milk solids will cook, and eventually most of them will brown and settle at the bottom of the jug. Take the jug out of the oven and let it cool. For Christ’s sake, don’t touch it! It is hotter than the sun, and it looks so innocuous, sitting there. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached for it to move it to a different counter or something, only to snatch my hand away when I felt the radiating heat.

Butter, ready to be strained off

Butter, ready to be strained off

When it is cool but still liquid, pour off the golden, clarified butter. You can filter it through a sieve, or through cheesecloth. I have cheesecloth, because I hate not having cheesecloth when I’m making an interesting dish that suddenly requires it. I won’t say cheesecloth is most useful item in my kitchen, but it’s good to know it’s there. You can buy a thousand miles of it in a tiny bag at the supermarket.

Butter, clarified and spiced

Butter, clarified and spiced

Berberé (Ethiopian spice mixture)

Berberé, as I understand it, is one of those foundational flavors, the Ethiopian equivalent of dashi, or fish sauce, or ras el hanout. Naturally the ingredients vary wildly, depending on who you ask, or what part of Ethiopia you are in, or what time of day it is, or what’s on hand, and this is as it should be. The essential ingredients are fenugreek and red peppers; everything else is more or less optional. Here is what I made:

1 tsp fenugreek

4 dried chilis (I used anchos)

Four cardamom pods

1/8 tsp ground cinnamon

The heads of six cloves

½ tsp ground coriander

½ tsp ground cumin

¼ tsp ground nutmeg

½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper

¼ tsp turmeric

1 Tb paprika (I used Spanish smoked)

1 Tb salt

1 tsp fresh grated ginger

Toss in all the spices into a heavy skillet over medium heat. Dry roast them for a minute but don’t burn them – you want them dark brown but definitely not black. Remove the skillet from the heat, and transfer the toasted spices to a mortar and pestle (or blender, or electric spice grinder…). Add a clove of garlic and a drizzle of olive oil. And then pound away. Pound, pound, pound! As the spices pulverize you can add more olive oil until you have a chunky paste. This paste is to die for and you’ll wish you made more. I do.

After much pounding

After much pounding

Doro Wat (Ethiopian chicken stew)

Since you now have niter kibbeh and berberé on hand, this stew is a snap.

3 red onions

1 large chicken breast

1 cup brown lentils, soaked

¼ cup niter kibbeh

3 Tb berberé paste

White wine


Finely chop up three onions and cook them. You just want them all nice and soft, not browned or caramelized. Add about 1/8 cup of your clarified, spiced butter. Then add the cut up chicken breast, sear it a little, and stir in your berberé paste. The amount depends on your tastebuds; I’d say I added about 3 Tb and could have added more. Same remarks for the niter kibbeh: as the stew neared completion, I tossed in a bunch more just to get full benefit of the spicy creaminess.

Add the soaked lentils (minus their soaking fluid) and enough water or wine to make a stew, about two cups. I’m pretty sure they don’t use white wine in Ethiopia, but I just hate adding water to stews. This would be a good place for real chicken stock, too.

Stew it away on low heat until the lentils are cooked, about half an hour. Garnish with cilantro and serve with flat bread. Eat with your right hand only.

doro wat

7 comments to The Spice Trade

  • li'l lamb

    gorgeous as usual! thanks.

  • No wonder tofu is often used as a substitution for chicken, it has no real flavor except what it takes on from its surroundings. :)

  • Bruce

    One wonders while pondering the vastness of the universe how tantalizing close one is to tasting culinary delights. Servings for four… two participants in a feast… Five bare miles away from unfortunates who bask in a bland world, underserved.

    Such is life.

  • Jon

    Made this tonight and it came out really nicely. I did use less onion – I doubled the recipe and 6 medium red onions would have more than filled the pot I was using, let along the other ingredients. So ended up with about 2/3 the recommended amount.

    Couple of questions/comments, as I’d never cooked some of these ingredients before:

    - Dried chilis – remove seeds before grinding? (the few seeds that did survive through seemed like they were just never going to get ground by my food processor)
    - Cardamom pods, remove pods before grinding? The pods don’t look or feel very edible. When I’ve used whole cardamom before it was removed at the end of cooking rather than eaten, so I’m unsure.

    The amount of salt was in retrospect too much, the next time I’ll probably use about half that much and add more near the end of stewing if needed. Likewise the chilis were a bit strong, perhaps because I used 3 anchos to 1 Santaka (which is much smaller, but has about 40x the Scoville rating).

    I didn’t feel up to making Ethiopian flatbread from scratch so just steamed up some rice with added cinnamon / cardamom powder / coriander / cumin to accompany. My dinner companion, who is young and blunt, was very complimentary and had seconds. Thanks for posting this!

  • Jon -
    thanks for reading and trying. My recipes tend to be suited to my personal tastes, so I never know if anyone else will like them. For example, I don’t remove seeds from chilis, because I like my mouth to be on fire. Cardamom pods are inedible, but I don’t mind picking bits out of my stew. In Thailand, where I had some of the best food of my life, it was not rare for about a quarter of the ingredients in any dish to be literally inedible – chunks of lemongrass, slices of galangal. But I don’t think it would hurt it much to remove the pods.

    My wife feels I make things too salty. She may be right. But I don’t eat many sweet things, so it all balances out in my book.

  • Jon

    Yep, I am more oriented towards sweet over salty. Oddly I tend to find hotness in Chinese cuisine more tolerable than Indian / Middle Eastern food. I’ve never tried to track down why that might be – I assume they’re all mostly getting hotness from capsaicin but perhaps it’s moderated differently by other common ingredients or relative oiliness of the food or something on that order. In any event this was pretty much the first substantial African-inspired dish I’ve cooked, and it was very good (though doubling the quantities was a bit much, I’ll be eating it for the next week :-) , so thanks again!

  • I haven’t had Ethiopian food in some time, but your dish has gotten me craving injera and awaze tibs. Oh man, and I love having a salad with a really acidic dressing on the side to cut through the heavy butter taste. MMMMM!