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Ethiopian food may seem exotic, but it’s easy to fall in love with the cuisine of this eastern African nation. Whether you’re a strict vegan, a traditional vegetarian or an old-fashioned omnivore, as long as your palate is prepared for intense flavors, Ethiopian cookery has a dish for you.

The deep, red color and spicy heat found in most Ethiopian dishes comes from the nationally popular spice blend called berbere. Usually made from dried chili peppers, garlic, fenugreek and warm spices such as cumin, ginger, black pepper, allspice and cloves, berbere seasoning is typically mixed with water or oil to make a paste before it is used in cooking. This step is not strictly necessary, but it deepens the flavor and makes the dish taste more authentically Ethiopian. Wet or dry, berbere makes a flavorful spice rub for meats and fish.

Berbere is also the essential seasoning in Ethiopia’s famous stews, curry-like mixtures known as wot or wat that are often flaming hot — an acquired taste for some! To dial back the lip-burning, if authentic heat of the berbere, we often will substitute mild California chili powder for half or even more of the spicier blend.

Making Ethiopian stew at home is easy and while the traditional accompaniment, a fermented bread known as injera that is made from a tiny, nutritious grain called teff, is a bit of a stretch for most home cooks, you can serve your wot with any mild carb such as rice, barley or toasted bread.

Our basic Ethiopian Berbere Sauce recipe uses no animal products. You can keep it vegan with lentils, as in the second recipe below, or serve it with cooked lamb, beef or chicken.

Ethiopian Berbere Sauce

Serves 2-4

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp. grated fresh ginger

2 tsp. Ethiopian Berbere Spice

2 tsp. California chili powder

1/2 tsp. sea salt

2 Roma tomatoes, finely chopped

Heat up a non-stick pan over medium heat.

Add chopped onion, without adding oil, and sauté for about 10 minutes.

When the onion is slightly charred on the edges, add vegetable oil.

Add ginger and stir in for a minute.

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Add berbere spice, California chili and salt and gently mix all ingredients.

Add chopped tomatoes; crush and mix for about 5 minutes.

Ethiopian Berbere Sauce with Red Lentils

Serves 2-4

Prepare sauce, above.

Add 1/2 cup dried red lentils.

Add 1/4 tsp. salt and 1 cup water.

Bring to a boil.

Lower the heat and cook, covered, for 15 minutes.

Serve with rice or flat bread.