When I was in Tucson, I fell in love with berbere. This is an Ethiopian blend of spices that I’d never heard of until I found it in bulk at Nur Grocery. Drawn by its color and then its fragrance, I bought a bag of it and used it without stint. On rice, in soups, this powder gave a depth of flavor and heat that became addictive. When I used the last of it after moving back to Seattle, my meals lacked an essential dimension and I began to wonder if I needed to make a trip back to Tucson just to get berbere. 

Covid made this an unappealing thought–I wasn’t even taking the city bus at this stage of the pandemic. But Seattle has a sizable number of Ethiopian restaurants and I lived within walking distance of a store called East African Imports, a place that had wrapped me in the scent of spices when I’d explored it in the past. When I walked in again, I followed my nose and in a distant corner, there was a bag of brilliant scarlet berbere, its odor piercing the barrier of plastic that contained it. 

Times have changed. I live farther from that spice shop now and the neighborhood surrounding it has been plagued with shootings. An open-air market of drugs and stolen merchandise formed a gauntlet between me and berbere. Demoralized by covid-spawned caution, I kept away.

For a while a Turkish grocery in the Pike Place Market sold berbere in small bags but when The Souk ran out, its owner was unable to get more. An upscale food store down the street had it in tiny plastic containers that held less than one-quarter of a cup and were priced at around six dollars apiece. The information on the labels claimed it cost over thirty dollars a pound.

That tiny container was gone after two batches of lentil soup, even though I emptied it with restraint. I began to wonder if Nur Grocery did mail-order, but at last I forced myself onto a bus and made the trip up to East African Imports. There in that same dark corner was a bag of berbere that scented the inside of my purse all the way home. Even the paper money smelled of berbere by the time the bag reached my kitchen and days later, although I’d put it in air-tight containers, berbere is what hits my nose when I walk into my apartment.

For eleven dollars and a small bus trip that was much less exciting than news reports had made me think it would be, I have almost a pound of berbere, warming my life and my food. I’ve sprinkled it over a container of supermarket hummus and am ready to discover what a teaspoon of it will do when I add it to the flour mixture of homemade bread. 

According to the internet, enterprising cooks buy a variety of spices and make berbere for themselves. I think that’s cheating. Berbere requires a journey; in return it gives me a story, along with meals that connect me to people who’ve had it flowing through their veins since birth. Its fragrance promises me that beyond the boundaries imposed by covid, another world is waiting. I can’t wait to go there.