A white (faranje) adoptive mother to two Ethiopian (habesha) girls wends her way through
Exotic Ethiopian Cooking by D. J. Mesfin

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Nit'ir Qibe ("How to Purify Butter/Herbed Butter")

"Nit'ir Qibe is a basic ingredient in the preparation of authentic, tasteful Ethiopian dishes.  It is used to prepare all dishes requiring butter." ~ D. J. Mesfin, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, p. 5

Mr. Mesfin is not kidding here.  The first time I attempted to make an Ethiopian dish, I had been home from Ethiopia for about two weeks with the then-6-month-old Ethiopians.  I pulled out my copy of Exotic Ethiopian Cooking and prepared to make doro w'et.  My eyes scanned the ingredients.  "Chicken, check.  Red onions, check.  Berbere, check (we had brought some home from Addis and, thanks to the generosity of many, I have not yet been forced to purchase berbere via mail order).  'Butter (spiced)'....uhm, what?"  (And that was before I even hit the spices required that I'd have to research and figure out where to find.)

I had no idea what was being asked for.  Eventually, I discovered there was a recipe for it at the beginning of the book, but the fortification that that discovery provided was temporary.  For starters, the first ingredient was twelve pounds of butter.  Twelve.  Pounds.  We don't even go through a pound a year, really, unless I'm baking or something.  Then there was another short list of spices that cannot be found in aisle five of Stop & Shop.  Or even in Whole Foods.  

I was so tempted to skip this step and just use plain butter.  Really, could it make that much of a difference, I wondered?  Was I really going to clarify twelve pounds of butter?  I am a long-time fan of Julia Child and come from a family that is heavy into shellfish worship (if you consider "eating" a form of worship), so I do not fear butter.  But this was twelve pounds of it.  Surely, it had to be illegal to be in possession of that much animal fat at one time.  

If I was going to just be making the doro for myself, I might have taken the easy way out, but this was going to be for a Christmas party with other families with children adopted from Ethiopia and, somehow, I was afraid that everyone there would be bringing some fabulous, homemade, perfectly authentic Ethiopian food and if I just used plain butter, they would all know and judge me.  Perhaps they may even call our social worker, whispering urgently, "but she used plain butter in the doro.  Plain butter.  And she was allowed to adopt?"  

This was also my first time attending a gathering of this type, I might add, as it was easier for us to avoid these things while we were waiting for a referral, so I didn't realize what a great bunch of folks they all are.  And it turned out that not everyone brought homemade Ethiopian food.  Some brought Ethiopian takeout.  Some brought fabulous, authentic Italian food.  Some brought Doritos.  But, by this time, the first batch of nit'ir qibe had been made and I had made and brought doro and t'ibs we't.  I did forget the hard-boiled eggs, but everyone thought I was insane for even trying to bring anything that required cooking after having only been home a couple of weeks with infant twins and they forgave me for forgetting the eggs.  They even forgave me when I forgot them for the Christmas party the following year (well, the adults did; there were quite a few older Ethiopian kids there who were not quite so generous, but I can't blame them because, truly, the eggs are the best part).  To my knowledge, no one even told our social worker about the missing eggs.  

No one would have cared if I had used plain butter instead of the spiced butter; however, it would have been a vastly inferior dish, trust me.  When folks ask how I get my we'ts tasting like they do, I give top billing to the nit'ir qibe because it deserves it.  You can omit something from the rest of the dish, but as long as you have some good nit'ir qibe in it, no one will care.  You won't even care.  I can now tell if a dish has been made with plain butter; it tastes perfectly fine, but there is no "wow" factor.  

This week's random selection is actually not nit'ir qibe, it's t'ibs we't.  But the t'ibs requires nit'ir qibe and I was all out of it, so I thought I'd take the time to document the nit'ir qibe process.  It's not a horribly difficult process, but the skimming of the foam can take a while.  It doesn't, however, require a lot of babysitting, so you can putter around doing other things and just stop by the stove occasionally to skim the foam.  

As an alternative, there are places to find nit'ir qibe on-line (Brundo on my sidebar has it, listed under "Staples to Ethiopian Living"), and if you have an Ethiopian restaurant nearby, they'd probably be happy let you purchase some from them.  I've just always made my own.  

The twelve pounds of butter will yield about 21 cups of nit'ir qibe.  Most of these recipes call for about one to two cups of the nit'ir qibe, so this is a healthy supply; I only need to make nit'ir qibe two or three times a year, at most.  Because it's clarified, it will last for a very long time in your refrigerator, or, if you're very concerned about its shelf-life, you can throw it in your freezer.  I measure it all out into one-cup Glad containers and stack them up in my downstairs refrigerator until I need some.  

To start, procure this:

I highly, highly suggest that you purchase the "cheap" butter that comes in one-pound blocks.  Otherwise, you're looking at peeling the wrappers off of 48 sticks of butter.  I've done it.  It loses its allure quickly.  At least with the one-pound blocks, there are only twelve wrappers to contend with, and they're bigger and much easier to get off.  

Throw those puppies into a very large pot:

And start melting them.  While the butter is melting down, there's plenty of time to pull together the rest of the ingredients:

chopped ginger

chopped garlic

chopped red onion

and the spices

From the top and moving clockwise, the spices are: 

~  azmud ("white" cumin seed; the regular cumin you can find in any grocery or market...sometimes I use ground cumin, sometimes I use cumin seed; the recipe doesn't really specify, and it comes out great with either)

~  besobilia ("sacred basil").  Go to your Asian grocery and ask for "tulsi":

~  cardamom seeds (both plain cardamom and "black cardamom" is mentioned throughout this book; unless it specifically states "black cardamom", I use the regular cardamom you can find in your local store

~  abish (fenugreek) (I get mine at my Asian market, but it has also been found at Whole Foods)

Once the butter has all melted, the tedious part begins.  If you do a Google search on how to clarify butter, there are all sorts of methods, some of which may speed up the process.  I just do it the way Julia does it.  

See that foam that's collecting on the top?  You have to get rid of it.  I just take a spoon and gently skim the surface of the liquid, gathering up the foam.  As soon as you remove some foam, there will be more foam rising from the bottom of the pan to take its place.  From my rough calculations (I start with 24 cups of butter and end up with 21 cups of nit'ir qibe), there will be about three cups of foam that will need to be removed.  I've never timed this step, but it can seem interminable.  Just keep the heat very low so that there's no chance the butter will burn and you'll be able to do other things while you wait for new foam to rise.  

Just when you're sure it'll never end, you end up with this:

There's still some residual foam around the edges, and I took another few swipes after I took this picture, but I'm not obsessive about it.  You really just want most of it gone.  

Now, you add in the chopped onions, garlic, and ginger and the spices and let simmer for 15 minutes.  Some more foam will collect here and there, but not in the same quantity as before.  I just keep skimming it off.  

a bit more foam arises

After it's simmered and skimmed one last time, let it sit for a little bit so that the spices and the chopped savories have settled to the bottom.  Then it's ready to be ladled into whatever container(s) you wish to use to store it.  The recipe says to strain it at this point, but sometimes, I just gently ladle it out from the very top until I get close enough to the bottom that I'm starting to disturb the sludge when I dip the ladle or measuring cup in.  Then I strain the rest.

a colander on top of  a stockpot

the last bit of clarified butter from the bottom of the pan, along with the sludge

To get out every last bit of the clarified butter, I take a spatula and kind of stir/press the mixture to facilitate the straining process.  I'm then left with the remains of the onions, ginger, garlic, and spices:

If you're a purist, you might not want the last little bit of clarified butter, as it does become a bit murky.  I suppose I could strain it further with some cheesecloth or a jelly strainer, but, usually, by this time, I'm ready to be done.  And, frankly, the murky stuff still tastes amazing!  It's just not crystal clear like the unadulterated stuff is.  

For comparison:

the pure nit'ir qibe from the top of the pan

the nit'ir qibe that came from the bottom of the pan

side by side

a side view of the sludgy stuff

The cup on the right is a little bit sludgier than I would usually keep, but what I often do is use the sludgy stuff in recipes that call for two cups of the nit'ir qibe; I use one cup of the pure nit'ir qibe and one cup of the sludgy stuff and it all works out in the wash.  The "sludge", as I call it, is just all of the good stuff that differentiates the nit'ir qibe from mere butter, so there's no reason to let it go to waste.

Tomorrow, I'll be putting a couple of these cups of nit'ir qibe to use in the t'ibs we't I'll be making for dinner!  


  1. you are my hero! This is fantastic! (and your story about the first time you forgot the eggs had me laughing.)

  2. Hey, that is cool. It helped me a lot to know the spices name in English, Thanks you. What about omitting some ingredients like abish?