Nov 18, 2013

How to Make Niter Kibbeh--the thing that has been missing in your Ethiopian Cooking.

So, I've been trying for four years to make my Ethiopian food more authentic. NOt because I'm a culinary snob or something (heavens no, I love blue jello for instance) but because it is so inescapably and incurably good when I get Ethiopian food cooked by an actual Ethiopian, and when I've made mine, there has always been something not quite there. Missing flavors, missing savors. Sorry, I'm a poet. You'll have to put up with that.

I finally found out why. It's because all the recipes Ethiopians give to Americans to use start with vegetable oil. You chop up a multitude of red onions, fry them in vegetable oil with some berebere and maybe garlic powder, etc, then add fillers like tomato sauce....

it's just not the same. It's not Ethiopian food.

Because Ethiopians start, not with vegetable oil, but with a thing called Niter Kibbeh

which is a spiced, clarified butter that you will not find in the U.S. Unless you make it. And making it adds a few steps and an hour of time to any Ethiopian recipe. Which I think many people don't believe Americans would be willing to put up with.

But I am. (willing.) (because I love those real tastes and flavors I've finally been able to get going in my Ethiopian cooking.)

So, here's the recipe I found:

1 lb unsalted butter
1/2 onion, chopped
2 -3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 inch gingerroot, cut into 1/4-inch slices
3 -4 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
3 -4 whole cloves
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Place the butter in a small saucepan and melt over low heat. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer on the lowest possible heat for about 1 hour.
Pour the clear golden liquid off the top leaving all the solids in the bottom of the pan. Strain through cheesecloth if necessary. Discard solids.
Store in the refrigerator or freezer and use as needed.

So what I do is, I follow those first four ingredients exactly (but I use normal butter... it's still fine).

Then instead of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek & turmeric I put in about a tablespoon (maybe 2) of
Garam Masala spice, which includes all of those things. It makes it much easier. More Ameri-friendly.

One thing I added was a good handful of a spice I ordered off of It's called Koseret. It looks like dried leaves, and half-way reminds me of basil, but it's got a wild, grassy scent that is unlike anything I've found here in America. IT makes the niter kibbeh perfect. But it's probably still pretty great without that.

The ingredients:

You can see the Garam Masala, garlic, ginger, red onion (in Ethiopian cooking, use red whenever possible). And the Koseret.

So you put four sticks of butter in a small saucepan, and put the burner on its lowest setting and let the butter slowly melt down. When you've got a nice puddle in the bottom, you can add the stuff into it.

Let it simmer on that lowest heat, slowly melting and separating (browning foam on top, clear liquid in underneath & sediment at the bottom) for one hour. Then pour the golden liquid into another container, without allowing the stuff on top or the stuff on bottom to trickle in very much.

A little sediment will escape, and there will be a little bit of stuff in the clarified butter. That's OK.

OK. Now use it to start all your meals. Any recipe that says "olive oil" or "vegetable oil," use the same amount of Niter Kibbeh. You will be very happy with the difference this makes in your Ethiopian cooking.


Luisa Perkins said...


Janell said...

When you wrote, "I use normal butter," I had to stop and read the recipe again wondering what sort of strange butter I had overlooked. In my little world, unsalted is normal butter :) The salted is typically kept on hand for buttering bread and not much else.

While reading this I could smell the deliciousness. Usually anything with garam masala will catch my attention. Now I am off to search your blog and the internet for Ethiopian recipes to try!