In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they’ve brought home from their travels. Here, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson—owner of Red Rooster Harlem and author of Yes, Chef: A Memoir—reveals the wonders of his favorite flavor enhancer.
There’s a red spice blend called berbere, which has a smell that says Ethiopia. It’s made from chili, salt, cardamom, garlic, and ginger. When I’ve driven through the Ethiopian countryside, I’ve seen families putting their chilies and spices out to dry, later pounding them, stone to stone, grinding them together the way people made grits back in the day.
The first time I had berbere in Ethiopia was about 10 or 12 years ago when I went to visit my father for the first time. (I was adopted and I didn’t know him before.) I’d had it at Ethiopian restaurants in New York or D.C. but it didn’t taste quite the same. On that particular occasion, I had berbere tossed with raw beef and spiced butter. It was delicious. Because it was a big occasion, it had a sense of specialness.
Every country has its own spice blend. Certain cultures have been blended up, especially those with ports and a lot of trade, like Marrakesh. But Ethiopia has been isolated for a long time, so its spice blend isn't well known and food made with it has an especially distinctive taste.
While you can find berbere all over Ethiopia, I like to get it from Gurage, where my wife is from, because that’s where we’ve spent time. But every family in Ethiopia has its own version. It’s like succotash in the South, or matzo ball soup. The flavor also varies from region to region, depending on the amount of rain or sun, how dry it is, and how things grow there. Spice is very much like wine. It reflects its terroir.
I always bring berbere back from my trips. I give it to people as gifts, use it at the restaurant, and cook with it at home. When I cook with it at home, the whole room smells great—you know some good Ethiopian eats are in the works. It reminds me of growing up in Sweden—around the holidays your home would smell like Glugg, with cinnamon, orange, red wine, cardamom. You knew you were home.
Berbere can be mixed with lemon juice and olive oil for a great rub on chicken. You can add it to mustard for a pickle sauce. You blend it with avocado and your guacamole tastes completely different. You can even use it in cocktails, although my wife, who grew up eating it, is like, “Can you actually do that?” She’s more of a traditionalist, but I think that’s where the eye of a chef comes in, using it in a cocktail, on smoked salmon, whatever you can think of.
When I’m cooking with it at home, I love to put it on my meatballs and serve it with a very simple pasta, couscous, or cracked wheat. I heat olive oil, add a little garlic or shallots, then add in cracked wheat with the roasted carrots and berbere. It’s super delicious—the carrots are sweet, the cracked wheat is hearty, and the berbere makes it taste like “Oh wow.”
Spices are windows into the countries they come from. Once you have good spices, you don’t need much more. It’s a postcard you can actually activate and use.