Ethiopian Red Lentils

May 2, 2006 at 8:06 pm (B plus (3.5 stars, like a lot), Beans, Ethiopian)

Berbere is the hot spice mixture that is used in many Ethiopian wats, or stews. It can also be used in other recipes that call for a hot spice. I found three berbere recipes. One in the cookbook Sundays at Moosewood, one online from a personal chef, and one in my recipe collection from who-knows-where originally. But they were all relatively similar. I wonder if they were all based on the same recipe originally?

The recipe in the cookbook “Exotic Ethiopian Cooking” by D.M. Mesfin that I checked out of the library certainly was extremely different. First of all, it called for 15 pounds of dried new Mexican chilis! It was more of a paste also, with fresh garlic, ginger, and red onion. It also had a number of ingredients I didn’t recognize, like rue seed, sacred basil, and bishop weed. After all the ingredients are ground down, the mixture is supposed to stand for 12 hours, then be baked in an oven or the sun, so I’m not sure how wet the final product is. Another spicy paste in the cookbook, Awaze, looks pretty similar except it also includes 2 cups of red wine. Anyway, here is the recipe I ended up using for berbere:


2 tsp. cumin seed
1 tsp. fenugreek
8 cloves
3/4 tsp. cardamom seeds (black)
3/4 tsp. peppercorns
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. whole allspice (or 1/4 tsp. ground)
1/2 tsp. ginger powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. turmeric, ground
1/4 tsp. cinnamon, ground
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. dried shallots (optional, or dehydrated onions maybe more, up to 2 ounces?)
3 ounces dried new mexican chilies, seeded and stemmed (or 3 Tbs. sweet paprika and 5 tsp. red pepper flakes or 10 small dried red chiles)

In a small frying pan, on medium-low heat, toast the whole spices (cumin, cloves, fenugreek, cardamom, peppercorns, coriander, and allspice) for about 2 minutes or until fragrant, stirring constnatly. Remove the pan from the heat and cool for 5 minutes.

If using the chiles, discard the stems. If using the New Mexican chiles, seed them and tear into coarse pieces. In a spice grinder finely grind together the toasted spices and chiles. Mix in the remaining ingredients.

Store berbere refrigerated in a well-sealed jar.

Yields about 3/4 cup (i.e. 12 Tbs.) Or maybe 1/3 cup if using the small chilies and 1/4 cup if using the chili flakes?

This berbere recipe has an awful lots of spices. I wonder if they’re all absolutely necessary? Could I make a berbere that was just as good with only 1/2 the number of spices?

Spicy red lentil stew (Miser Wat)

The Ethiopian cookbook mentioned above calls for 2 cups lentils, 6 cups water, and 1.5 cups oil! I cut down on the oil, but used the 6 cups of water, which was probably a mistake.

4 Tbs. olive oil
2 cups onion (one large onion or two small onions)
1 tsp. garlic, chopped
1 Tbs. fresh ginger, minced
2 Tbs. berbere
2 cups split red lentils
6 cups water or vegetable broth
1.5 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. tomato paste (maybe more, up to 1/4 cup? or chopped tomatoes?)
1 ounce red wine (optional, maybe more?)

Saute the onions in the olive oil, until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and ginger and saute for another minute. Add the berbere and saute for a few minute smore, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. The onions should start to carmelize Mix in the chopped tomatoes and tomato paste and simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes. Add the lentils, tomato paste, salt, red wine, and the vegetable stock or water and bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook uncovered for an hour?

Serve with injera and a vegetable.

Makes about 7 cups?

My notes: This recipe is quite good. My friend said it tasted just like what you get at an Ethiopian restaurant. I wasn’t positive about that, but enjoyed it thoroughly. I do however find the lentils a bit strong to eat by themselves. They need injera or a vegetable or other starch to eat in conjunction. Also, with 6 cups of water my lentils started out very soupy and I thought they would always be soup, but after cooking them on very low for a long time they eventually developed the nice thick consistency they’re supposed to have. However, if I made them again I think I would use less water (maybe 4-5 cups?) and cook covered instead. I also might use slightly more berbere, or make a spicier berbere since although the lentils had great flavor they weren’t spicy enough in my opinion.

These lentils (like all red lentil dishes) have more calories than you might think. They are, however, quite filling, so 1/2 cup is quite sufficient.

Nutritional info for 1/14 of the recipe (about 1/2 cup I think)
Calories 144
Total Fat 4.5g (27%)
Saturated Fat 0.5g
Cholesterol 0mg
Sodium 282mg
Carbohydrate 18.9g (51%)
Dietary Fiber 4.4g
Sugars 1.7g
Protein 7.8g (21%)
Vitamin A 1% Vitamin C 3%
Calcium 2% Iron 10%

Rating: B+
Derek: B+

Update May 8, 2006: I used 4 cups of water and it didn’t quite seem like enough, so I added another 1/2 cup after they’d been cooking a while. The quantity of lentils seemed like less than last time though, maybe 5 cups rather than 7 cups? I think next time I will try starting with 5 cups of water. I used 2 Tbs + 1 tsp. berbere and the lentils tasted good but still weren’t spicy enough. I don’t think they need any more berbere–I think I’ve just got to add some cayenne.


  1. Ian said,

    Umm… The key to good Ethiopian food is the spiced oil. Berbere is really hard to recreate at home… non of the recipes I’ve tried (many) taste like it, because it has ingredients that are totally unavailable in the states. “False basil” “False xxxx” “False etc.” are name for plants that resemble that in the States, but are actually different; you are best to just order some. Also, plenty of vegetarian Ethiopian doesn’t have Berbere in it, just the hotter dishes. Gomen, Atakilt, Kik Alicha, etc. don’t need it. Make spiced oil with lots of fresh basil and oregano and your food will come out great though. I have been serving Ethiopian food in a restaurant setting for 10 years. Cookbook is on Amazon under Ian Finn. Good luck!

  2. Tara said,

    I made this recipe using 3 T of berbere powder (purchased on Amazon) and 5 cups of water. The consistency was fine, but the taste was not as good as restaurant mesir wat. Other Ethiopian recipes I’ve tried use a lot more oil, so I will try making this again with 1/2 cup oil. Also, I think the berbere powder that I have is not spicy enough, so I will purchase a different type at a local Ethiopian grocery store.

  3. Jay said,

    I’ve made this several times at home over the past two years; for spices I use either berbere from a local spice shop that compounds everything by hand, or a good substitute and sometimes more available is Peri-Peri from Mozambique recipe. I have found variations of Peri-Peri and berbere in cookbooks that came from Tangiers through Maputo. The Mozambiquan variation has notes of citrus to it that I find pleasing combined with the heat of the chiles.

    I don’t use as much berbere in my variation as in this recipe–I use just shy of a TBSP–but I also use at least two cloves of garlic and 1 TBSP of fresh minced ginger is just a starting point. When the onions are translucent, I add the garlic, ginger and one or two seeded jalapeno peppers or one unseeded serrano depending on pepper varieties available & how hot my family wants the ye’miser wat to be.

    I use a cast iron dutch oven on the stove top and I find that two cups of lentils and six cups of water is just right–one just has to have a little patience–cook uncovered with lentils is my preference, that way you can smell it & stir it and enjoy it before it’s ready.

    If you want to take this dish from a B+ up to an A/A+, use niter kebbeh as the fat for sauteeing the onions/garlic/spices. Niter kebbeh is worth the effort to make; it is like ghee only with a delicious kick.

    • captious said,

      Thanks Jay and Tara for your comments. I’ll try your suggestions next time I make this. I actually haven’t made it in years so now would be a good time to try again!

  4. Kristal said,

    I would also suggest using authentic Berbere imported from Ethiopia. You can find some on Very flavorful and delicious, I use it to cook everything

  5. Elaine Campbell said,

    A good berbere can also be purchased at That’s where I got mine.

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