Women's Work

Berbere - the finished productThere are aspects to life in the community that foreigners are rarely aware of. Take “berbere” for example - a spice essential for Ethiopian cooking. In the month of “Hidar” (the third month of the Ethiopian calendar - 10th November to 9th December) many women make it – from scratch! The only awareness a temporary resident here may have that something unusual is taking place is the slightly increased price of garlic and onions.

It can take a week and very intense work to produce berbere, and often sufficient is prepared to last the whole year. As well as onions and garlic, cayenne hot chilli peppers (the long ones) are used in copious quantities plus an essential ingredient - fenugreek. Indeed around 18 wet and dry ingredients may be prepared.

Chillies drying in the sunThe ingredients are cleaned, chopped and crushed in a mortar and pestle. All ingredients are wrapped and left for 3 days for the flavours to mingle, then dried in the sun. The result is roasted on an injera cooker, then taken to someone who owns a large mill (think big coffee grinder) where for a few Birr it can be ground into powder.

What I found fascinating when talking to Ethiopian ladies about this is how passionate they are about the ingredients and quantities. I’m told that most seeds are removed from the chillis but some remain to give a fiery taste. Too many and the spice loses its characterful red colouring.

A bit like a closely guarded Christmas pudding recipe in the UK each woman I spoke to had a firm opinion about ingredients they thought essential and others they would never include. There are also cultural influences and a Gurage (Goo-rah-gee) woman would make her berbere differently from one who originates in the Amhara region.

Why is this important you may ask? Well the cost of the ingredients is high when they are purchased all at once. One lady estimated 2,000 Birr (just under £71). So several ladies save each week and work together to purchase the ingredients. They just have to agree between themselves on the recipe!

Berbere spice is locally measured by the ferasolah (17kg) whereas teff (the grain that forms the basis of injera) is measured by the quintal (100kg).

Phil and I often marvel at the Ethiopian diet. It varies very little with lunch and dinner often indistinguishable. Only breakfast I was informed may vary. Ginglo – a porridge is preferred by ladies and eaten occasionally, whereas men prefer eggs and “fir fir” (chopped-up injera mixed with tomatoes, onions and berbere) or “fur fur” (where dried meat is added). Another occasional concoction is “birso” (crushed roasted barley) which when mixed with oats and added to a drink is good for colds and following pregnancy. It ‘cleans you out’ I’m assured.

There's a lot of berbere in there...More berbere is used on special occasions where a variety of toppings (wats) for the injera are prepared - some are meat and some are vegetable based. Haile’s wife makes a very nice thick tomato wat. At these holiday times, many women work through the night to prepare the food. This may be partly cultural - virtually everything happens here only when the need is imminent. However contributory factors could also be that refrigeration is not possible for many and electricity is unreliable. Apparently, the women talk amongst themselves about how exhausting holiday food preparation can be and some may lose their appetite once their husbands, relatives and children have all been served.

So the next time you reach for a jar of spice in Sainsbury’s, spare a thought for the Ethiopian woman. For her it represents considerable hard work.


I went to sainsburys today and bought a jar of Thai 7 spice...I wonder how many hands were involved in that process? Thanking God for them today. 

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