Spices and condiments in Ethiopia (Jansen, 1981)

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Introductory part
Jansen, Spices and medicinal plants in Ethiopia
Spices and condiments in Ethiopia (Jansen, 1981)
Aframomum corrorima


2 Spices and condiments in Ethiopia

The words 'spices' and 'condiments' are used here to denote plants or plant products that are used to flaveur foods or beverages before, during or after their preparation. Culinary herbs are included.

The literature generally admits that the distinction between spices, condiments, and culinary herbs is not clear. Sorne authors prefer to restrict the term spice to those culinary plants (or their products) that are of tropical origin. Usually 'condiment' is considered to comprise also flavourings of non-vegetable origin (for instance salt).

Redgrove (1933) preferred to use the word 'condiment' to denote a spice or other seasoning used in a particular manner, i.e. added to food after it has been served at table. The term 'culinary herb' is sometimes restricted to plants from outside the tropics.

For convenience the term 'spice' is used here in its widest sense.

Under spices, most people understand plants or their products like the following:

  • cardamon (Elettaria cardamomum Maton) ('hell': Amarinia; 'Hindu's korarima': Gallinia);
  • cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum Breyn) ('karafa, karafu': Amarinia, Gallinia);
  • clove (Syzygium aromaticum L.) ('krinfud': Amarinia);
  • nutmeg and mace (Myristica fragrans Houtt.) ('gaws': Amarinia);
  • black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) ('kundo berbere': Amarinia);
  • Indian long pepper (Piper longum L.) ('timiz': Amarinia);
  • turmeric (Curcuma longa L.) ('urd, ird': Amarinia; 'hard': Gallinia).

Although all 'classical' spices are used in Ethiopia, they are not grown there but imported, mainly from India. Recently there has been sorne cultivation of turmeric.

The following spices, grown in Ethiopia, are dealt with in detail in this book:

  • (l) Aframomum corrorima (Braun) Jansen, Zingiberaceae, 'korarima' (Amarinia); part used: seed;
  • (2) Anethum foeniculum L., Umbelliferae, 'insilal' (Amarinia); part used: fruit;
  • (3) Anethum graveolens L., Umbelliferae, 'insilal' (Amarinia); part used : fruit;
  • ( 4) Capsicum annuum L., Solanaceae, 'berbere, mitmita' (Amarinia); part used: fruit;
  • (5) Coriandrum sativum L., Umbelliferae, 'dembilal' (Amarinia); part used: fruit;
  • (6) Cuminum cyminum L., Umbelliferae, 'ensilai' (Amarinia); part used: fruit;
  • (7) Nigella sativa L., Ranunculaceae, 'tukur azmut' (Amarinia); part used: seed;
  • (8) Ocimum basilicum L., Labiatae, 'basobila' (Amarinia); part used: aerial parts;
  • (9) Rhamnus prinoides L'Hér., Rhamnaceae, 'gesho' (Amarinia); part used: aerial parts;


  • (10) Ruta chalepensis L. , Rutaceae, 'tenadam' (Amarinia); part used: mostly fruit;
  • (11) Trachyspermum ammi (L.) Sprague ex Turrill, Umbelliferae, 'netch-azmut' (Amarinia); part used: fruit;
  • (12) Zingiber officinale Rosc. , Zingiberaceae, 'zingibel' (Amarinia); part used: rhizome.

The spice Trigonella foenum-graecum L. ('abish': Amarinia) has been described by Westphal (1974, p. 199-205). The spices Brassica nigra (L.) Koch ('senafitch' : Amarinia), and Sesamum indicum L. ('salid': Amarinia) will be treated by Seegeler in the forthcoming book on Ethiopian oil-plants in this series.

Many other spices of min or significance used and grown in Ethiopia (and not treated here in detail) are listed in Chapter 4.

In terms of cultivated area and production, only Brassica, Capsicum, Rhamnus, Trigonella and Sesamum have agricultural significance in Ethiopia. Hardly any export of spices exists. Capsicum is most important in Ethiopia. The others are grown mainly as garden crops, although some of them are cultivated as a field crop as weil in sorne areas (e.g. Nigella, Trachyspermum, Coriandrum, Zingiber).

Aframomum corrorima is a spice only known from Ethiopia. It certainly deserves more attention, as its seeds have a milder, sweeter flavour than those of the better known West African species Aframomum melegueta.

The use and cultivation of the spices Nigella sativa and Trachyspermum ammi is also typical of Ethiopia, although they are cultivated and used elsewhere too.

Rhamnus prinoides is also a noteworthy Ethiopian plant. It is used to flavour local alcoholic beverages (just as hops are used elsewhere to flavour beer).

The other spices are well known all over the world.

Vavilov (1951) considered Ethiopia as a primary gene centre (centre of origin) for Rhamnus prinoides and as a secondary centre (centre of diversity) for Coriandrum sativum, Nigella sativa and Trachyspermum ammi. Although I certainly observed a wide variability in those species, this study does not confirm Vavilov's statements.

Of the spices dealt with, Aframomum and Zingiber fall within the 'ensat-planting complex' and 'shifting cultivation complex' (as distinguished by Westphal, 1975). All the other treated spices fall within the 'seed farming complex' and the 'ensat planting complex'.

Four of the twelve spices dealt with grow also in the wild in Ethiopia: Aframomum, Anethum foeniculum, Ocimum and Rhamnus.

The observed altitudinal ranges of growth of the spices are given in Table 1.

For Ethiopians, the significance of spices can hardly be overestimated. Spices are needed every day in the preparation of the main dish. The main dish consists of 'enjera' (bread) and 'wot' (spiced sauce).

'Enjera' is a kind of unleavened bread made of grain. The best 'enjera' is made of 'tef', Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter. As 'tef' is rather expensive, however, 'enjera' of inferior quality is often prepared from rn aize, sorghum, bar ley, wheat or from mixtures of grains. It is a kind of pancake, ca 0.5 m diam., ca 0.5 cm thick, baked in large earthenware or iron pans over open fire , grey, spongy, sour in ta ste. It is usually eaten cold, torn into pieces, dipped in the 'wot'.

The major use of spices in Ethiopia is in the preparation of 'wot'. 'Wot' is a thick,


Table 1. Altitudinal range of 12 Ethiopian spices.

altitude (m) Afromomum corrorima Anethum foeniculum Anethum groveolens Capsicum annuum Coriandrum sativum Cuminum cyminum Nigella sativa Ocimum basilicum Rhamnus prinoides Ruta chalepensis Trochyspermum ammi Zingiber officinale 0 500 1000 1500 2000 2500 3000 3500 4000

usually highly spiced sauce. Many kinds of 'wot' exist; almost every woman has her own recipe. The more sorts of spice added to the 'wot', the more it is appreciated (certainly, social status is involved in this appreciation too). Two groups of 'wot' can be distinguished. One group with Capsicum pepper ('berbere') as the main spice ('kai-wot' =red 'wot', pungent) and a group without Capsicum pepper ('alicha wot' = non pungent 'wot'). Both kinds are either based on meat ('siga wot' = beef 'wot', 'doro wot' = chicken 'wot'), or on pulses ('misir wot' = lentil 'wot', 'kik wot' or 'shiro wot' = pea or bean 'wot'). The use of meat is forbidden by religion (Ethiopian Orthodox Church) on days of fasting (up to 220 per year!). As meat is rather expensive, most people are obliged to prepare 'wots' based on pulses. Onions (shallots), garlic and butter or vegetable oil are the main ingredients of every 'wot'. Besides spices, 'wot' may contain vegetables, eggs and many other edible ingredients.

The major spice used in the preparation of Ethiopian alcoholic beverages is Rhamnus prinoides. Sorne weil know Ethiopian drinks are:

  • 'Talla'. A turbid frothing sour kind of beer, prepared from water, malt, flour and Rhamnus prinoides (leaves and woody parts). It is the most common alcoholic drink, prepared in almost every house, from any grain available. The volume fraction of alcohol is ca 7%.
  • 'Tedj'. An almost clear orange aromatic slightly sour honey drink, prepared from water, honey and Rhamnus prinoides (only woody parts). It is the 'beer' of rich Ethiopians, who can afford to buy expensive honey. Poor people drink it only on feast days. An inferior quality 'tedj' is produced by replacing up to three quarters of the honey by sugar. The volume fraction of alcohol is again ca 7%.


Photograph 1. Women selling spices and medicinal plants at Harar market.

  • 'Areke' or 'katikala'. A kind of gin, prepared from water, malt, flour and spices (leaves of Rhamnus prinoides, Anethum foeniculum, and other spices according to taste). It is also prepared by distillation of 'talla ' or 'tedj' or fermented 'enjera'. 'Areke' prepared from flour of Eleusine coracan (L.) Asch. & Graebn. ('chitta areke') is appreciated most. Spices are also used as medicines and to flavour bread, cakes, butter and raw meat. In Ethiopia, spices are sold by women on the markets. Usually those women sell only spices, or spices and medicinal plants. The spices are sold separately or in various mixtures. Almost every village has a small daily market ('sauce market') as well as its normal busy market day(s). There people can buy for their daily needs. Usually all markets are remarkably well supplied with indigenous and imported spices in all seasons of the year.