Ethiopian Berbere Red Lentils aka Mesir Wot (Gluten Free, Vegan Option)

Ethiopian Berbere Red Lentils (Mesir Wot)
Ethiopian Berbere Red Lentils (Mesir Wot)

Piles. Mounds. Messes.

All of the food I make for myself lately seems to come in shapeless blobs.

Now, blobs are not very pretty to photograph. They don’t exactly inspire me to refine them into semi-attractive non-blobs worthy of sharing.

But sometimes a big ol’ mess of food is so delightful that it’s worth tweaking into aesthetically attractive shapes.

Bowls pretty much solve this problem, of course. Throw a blob in a bowl, add some sliced veg/fruit, a pile of greens and a lovingly tarnished vintage spoon and yer good to go.

On Monday I had an intense craving for Mesir Wot, or Ethiopian Berbere Red Lentils. It’s one of the only straight up Ethiopian recipes I make over and over again. I mean, I make Ethiopian-inspired food all the time. And I put berbere on and in all the things.

Mesir Wot is very blobby. But dammit it’s delicious and it’s blob-status shouldn’t deter me from exposing you to it’s deeply spiced wonders!

So, here we are. I’m posting an amorphous, edgeless, vast sea of red lentils cooked with berbere, ghee, garlic, ginger and onion. I usually eat it with a serving of raw greens and a heaping portion of "cheesy" polenta (I just stir in nutritional yeast and cashew butter, to taste). It’s my idea of spicy, savory comfort food.

Logan and I have been long-time super fans of Ethiopian cuisine. It’s accidentally wheat-free by nature (teff is the staple grain of Ethiopia). And because most of Ethiopia's population is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, orthodox natives choose to fast by eating vegan many days of the year. When we go to the one Ethiopian Restaurant in Central Virginia (which is an hour drive away) we eat like royalty -- ordering a wide array of intensely flavorful, brightly-colored vegan stews that come served together on a platter of injera (a sourdough pancake made of teff).

So wait what is this berbere I'm waxing poetic about?

Ethiopian cuisine is known for its complexly-spiced stews (both meat and plant-based). The dark red spice mix known as berbere is a foundation of Ethiopian cuisine and it’s featured commonly in stews and curries. It’s a mellow, spicy and aromatic mixture of toasted and ground spices. I kind of think of it as Indian red curry meets Jamaican jerk spice rub.

It’s made a little bit differently all over Ethiopia (and in neighboring Eritrea). But typically it includes hot and mild chili peppers, cumin, garlic, coriander, basil, ginger, garlic, rue (a bitter seed), nigella, fenugreek, korarima (Ethiopian cardamom), ajwain (related to caraway and cumin) or radhuni (related to caraway but tasting strongly of celery).

In American iterations, where spices like rue / korarima / ajwain / radhuni are not accessible, berbere is often made with cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, caraway or celery seed (in addition to the aforementioned common spices).

I've been getting my berbere spice mix from that same Richmond-based Ethiopian restaurant that I mentioned earlier. They sell their mildly spicy blend in big jars. It's SO GOOD. Alas, it's rather hard to find a good pre-packaged berbere.

But Frontier just started carrying a blend (I recommend buying it in bulk, you'll use it up quickly TRUST ME). And I know some gourmet shops carry blends as well.

If you have any resources for where to buy excellent berbere, leave a note in the comments!

OTHERWISE you can make berbere yourself! I've made this recipe from Epicurious many times. And I just found this recipe from Marcus Samuelsson, which seems equally enticing (although I haven't tried it yet myself).

I like to make a big batch of berbere and use it as a spice rub on fish and tofu. It's also wonderful in all manners of soups and stews. And it adds tons of flavor to grains and tomato-based dishes. I've been known to put it in quiches and on scrambled eggs. I even put it in guacamole for a spicy pop of flavor.

And here's why you should make my version of Ethiopian Berbere Red Lentils:

#1 It takes 25 minutes and one pot (ahem, not including the 5 minutes it takes to make your own berbere if you choose to do that).

#2 It's heavy on the ghee, spices, garlic and ginger. Simple dish + BIG flavor = extreme happiness.

Note: this recipe calls for a lot of oil, which gives this dish it's rich, ultra satisfying flavor. I typically use ghee, but coconut oil is a great vegan substitution. If you're wary of oil for whatever reason, cut back to include around 2 tablespoons minimum.

Ethiopian Berbere Red Lentils (Mesir Wot)

Created by Renee on February 21, 2017

Note: pre-made Berbere tends to vary in spiciness. If you have a very spicy mix, add a tablespoon at a time to your dish towards the end of the cooking process, tasting and adjusting to your liking. See links in post regarding DIY berbere recipes.

  • Cook Time: 25m
  • Total Time: 25m
  • Serves: 4


  • 1/4 cup ghee or coconut oil
  • 1 cup minced onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 inches ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1/4 cup berbere spice mix
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 3 cups water
  • squeeze 1/2 lemon
  • salt + pepper to taste (1/2 teaspoon salt + 1/2 teaspoon pepper)
  • to serve: toast, leafy greens, cooked grain of choice


  1. Heat a sauce pot on medium high heat. Add ghee and onion and cook 5-8 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent. 
  2. Add the garlic, ginger and berbere. Stir everything together and let cook for 1 minute.
  3. Add the red lentils and water. Cover and simmer on medium-high heat with the lid ajar for 15-20 minutes. The dish is done when the lentils are soft and the stew is thick. Add salt + pepper, taste and adjust according to your preferences.
  4. Serve with toast, greens and cooked grain of choice.