Part of the allure of Ethiopian cuisine is dining without utensils. In place of spoons and forks, Ethiopians use injera—a spongy crepe used to grab each bite.
Injera is made from a grain called teff, which has been cultivated in Ethiopia for at least 3,000 years. This grain was once grown exclusively in East Africa, but now the rest of the world is taking a closer look.
The first thing you notice about teff is its size. The word teff means “lost,” referring to a grain that is so tiny it could easily vanish. This means that it cooks quickly, but it can also lead to confusion for those who aren’t familiar with it.
“The teff grain is so super tiny that I’ve heard of people grabbing the wrong product off the shelf, thinking that they were getting flour and realizing it was intact grains when they got back,” said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council.
Despite its smallness, teff is big on nutrition. It is an excellent source of essential amino acids, including lysine, which is usually absent from grains, and rich with minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and calcium.
“All whole grains have some calcium, but teff is kind of off the charts,” Harriman said. “One cup of teff has about the same calcium as a half cup of cooked spinach.”
Teff’s other big draw is that it is gluten-free—a necessity for those looking to avoid gluten. While many Americans have developed a taste for injera, teff can also fill a role in less exotic baked goods. Unlike other whole grains, teff has a mild flavor that easily lends itself to familiar American foods, such as tortillas, pasta, pancake mixes, and cookies.
Comparisons to Quinoa
Teff is often compared to another formerly obscure supergrain. Quinoa is also gluten-free. It has an impressive nutritional profile and an ancient food pedigree. But the rise of quinoa consumption in affluent countries has raised concerns that the grain has now become too expensive for the people who grow it.
These are not problems for teff. For years, the Ethiopian Ministry of Trade and Industry has strategically restricted teff exports to protect the country’s notoriously delicate food security. The ban is occasionally lifted when there is a surplus, but the price is still too high to encourage much of an international market.
While quinoa has proven nearly impossible to grow outside of Bolivia and Peru, teff has been successfully cultivated in Australia, the Netherlands, and India.
America’s teff capital is Idaho, specifically the Snake River region where Wayne Carlson, founder of the Teff Company, identified soil and weather conditions comparable to Ethiopia.
Carlson is credited with first bringing the tiny grain to the United States. Teff caught his attention while working on an Ethiopian public health project in the 1970s. Today, U.S. farmers grow about 10,000 acres of teff in at least 25 states. Most is grown for grass, which serves as horse hay.
Harriman says the biggest obstacle to growing teff for human consumption has been the limitations of a grain infrastructure that favors wheat, corn, and soybeans. She says many U.S. farmers don’t want to buy special equipment to handle such a tiny grain, and banks are reluctant to finance a crop they’ve never heard of.
“One of the reasons Wayne says that teff took off in Idaho is that Idaho has a lot of farmers who grow seeds for the seed and gardening industry, and they’re used to growing a little of this and a little of that,” Harriman said. “They aren’t quite so into the whole monoculture thing as you might find in say Iowa.”
A Taste of Home
While U.S. teff is gaining interest with the gluten-free crowd, Ethiopian immigrants are by far its biggest consumers.
Like teff, Ethiopian immigrants also began making their way to the United States in the mid-1970s when the country’s 3,000-year-old monarchy was toppled in a military coup. Bigger waves of immigration came with the wars that followed. Today, Ethiopians are the second largest group of African immigrants in the United States after Nigerians.
Transplants naturally want a taste of home, but recreating authentic flavors can be a challenge even with the benefit of American teff. U.S. farmers grow about 15 varieties. Nearly 4,000 varieties have been identified in Ethiopia.
At Ras Dashen, a restaurant on Chicago’s north side named after Ethiopia’s tallest mountain, chef and owner Zenash Beyene says she likes American teff, but it’s different than what she remembers.
“In Ethiopia you grind the teff, make a dough, and the next day you make injera. Beautiful injera. Here it’s so difficult to make,” she said. “Maybe it’s because the weather or soil is different. I don’t know. But it’s still teff. It’s still good to me.”
Because U.S. teff performs differently in the kitchen, American-made injera often contains more than half wheat or barley flour. Beyene makes an all-teff injera for customers who ask for it, but it took her a while to find a workable method.
“I had to play with it a lot,” she said.
Injera recipes are available over the Internet, but a good technique can take years to master. Beyene suggests that beginners start with teff porridge, which is prepared similarly to Cream of Wheat. Called genfo in Ethiopia, this hot cereal it is often mixed with honey, flax seeds, plain yogurt, or butter.
American teff comes in two basic shades: dark or light. But Ethiopian teff comes in a rainbow of colors, such as yellow, white, and a dark red variety that Beyene considers medicinal. In the village where she grew up, red teff was fed to new mothers to tighten abdominal tissue stretched from pregnancy.
“The red teff is good for you. If somebody break a bone in Ethiopia we make for them genfo,” Beyene said. “In three, four weeks, you’re healed.”
Teff Facts and Resources
Teff has a reputation for iron, but researchers say levels are not as high as previously thought, because samples from favorable studies were contaminated with soil. “That said, I’ve also seen studies that show that fermentation, as is traditionally done for injera, is important for making nutrients, especially iron and zinc, more bioavailable,” Harriman said.
In Ethiopia, white teff is more expensive and usually reserved for special occasions. Darker teff is considered more nutritious.
It takes about 100 teff grains to match the size of one wheat kernel.
All teff products are whole grain. Removing the bran and the germ from such a tiny grain isn’t worth the effort.
To learn more about teff and other African foods, check out African Heritage & Health Week, February 1 to 7. Oldways—the parent organization of the Whole Grain Council—is offering a six-lesson cooking program across the country to anybody who would like connect with the heritage foods of the African diaspora.