Lately, I've become very interested in learning about various spices of the world. In the next few weeks, I aim to learn to make some of the essential major African spice blends: Morroco's Ras el Hanout, Egypt's dukkah, Tunisia's baharat, and Ethiopia's famous berbere. Based on the availability of different ingredients in my kitchen, I decided to start with berbere on a whim. If you can't handle pepper, you can substitute a little bit of paprika; however, any true version of berbere requires the essential ingredients of fenugreek and chili peppers.
Berbere, which means "hot" in Amharic, is a common Ethiopian/Eritrean spice mixture that includes delicious flavors like ginger, chili peppers, garlic, cardamom, cumin, and fenugreek. It is an essential part of many classic Ethiopian meals, especially the famed Doro Wat. According to Ethiopian-Swedish celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, "berbere can be used to season everything from vegetables to meats and stews." As a devotee of Samuelsson's amazing Harlem soul food restaurant Red Rooster, I've been eager to employ some of his techniques and recipes in my own kitchen experiments.
Along with cauliflower, my other go-to vegetable in a pinch, eggplant absorbs flavors well and can be an excellent meat substitute in a meatless dinner. It doesn't hurt that eggplant is rich in fiber and antioxidants. It also helps prevent cancer and lower cholesterol. When buying eggplant, a word of caution: they are very perishable, so if you buy them, you should intend to eat them within 1 - 2 days. Eggplants can also be a little bitter, so you'll need to salt them to pull out some of the bitter components.
After making berbere following Samuelsson's recipe, I fried some eggplant until golden and then made a fragrant sauce with some tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, and berbere with a side of couscous. If you don't use all the berbere mixture, you can keep it in a small glass jar with an airtight lid for a few months.
My soundtrack to this dinner was Jill Scott's "It's Love" from her debut album "Who is Jill Scott?" alongside a little Cabernet Sauvignon, which goes well with eggplant.
Fried Eggplant and Chickpeas in a Tomato-Onion Berbere Sauce
Serves about 3 hungry people as a main course, 5 - 6 as a side dish.
2 baby eggplants, sliced into rounds
Kosher salt, to taste
3 - 4 tablespoons olive oil (You may need to add a little more if the pan is too dry)
2 medium-sized red onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons berbere (Spice blend following Samuelsson's recipe)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
4 ripe beefsteak tomatoes (or any large tomato variety)
One 15-oz can of cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- Heat a frying pan on high heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add enough eggplant slices to fit in one layer. Salt to taste (otherwise the eggplant will be bitter). Cook until the bottoms are golden brown, then flip it until it is golden brown on the other side. I like my eggplants truly brown, so I cook them for about 5 minutes on each side, adding more oil as needed. Add more salt as needed.
- In a small pot, add the onions and cook until they are soft. Add the garlic and cook for 2 additional minutes. Add the berbere and cayenne. Cook until the mixture becomes fragrant, before adding the tomatoes, chickpeas and half a cup of water.
- Cover the pan and allow the mixture to simmer until the tomatoes break down into the sauce.
- Serve the eggplant and chickpea tomato berbere sauce over couscous.
If you're feeling like you really want to try something a little different, you can also serve this mixture over attiéké, a popular Ivorian side dish made from cassava. Attiéké has a texture very similar to couscous, but it's gluten-free and quite healthy. It's simple to make and can be found in most African grocery stores. To make attiéké, you can simply steam it. Alternatively, you can pour it into a bowl and cover it with boiling water. While letting it steam for about 10 minutes, you use a fork to occasionally separate the grains.