This Fall’s Featured Food is Teff.
Teff is the smallest grain on earth. It is less than one millimeter in diameter. The word “teff” comes from the Ethio-Semitic root “tff” meaning “lost,” in reference to the grain’s tiny size.
Teff grows in a variety of colors, from white to red and dark brown. White or “ivory” teff has the mildest flavor described as “chestnut-like.” White teff is considered a status symbol, mainly consumed by the wealthiest and most prestigious Ethiopian families. Darker varieties are said to have an “earthier” taste. These have become increasingly popular due to their higher iron content.
Teff is believed to have been first domesticated in Ethiopia and Eritria between 4000 BCE – 1000 BCE. These countries use it mainly to create a fermented spongy flat bread called injera.
In Eritrea and Ethiopia, injera is eaten daily in virtually every household. Injera variations are eaten in Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen, and Sudan.
Wheat, barley, corn and orrice flours are often used with teff to make injera. Farmers living where teff does not optimally grow substitute these grains from their own crops. Teff is the most expensive grain in Ethiopia due to its labor intensive harvesting and processing, and low yields. Still, due to cultural traditions, delicious taste and superior nutritional quality, teff remains popular. 1, 2
To make injera, teff flour is mixed with water and allowed to ferment for several days, much like sourdough, giving injera a mildly sour taste. Then the batter is cooked into large crepe-like injera on a metal plate placed over a fire or burner. The bottom surface of the injera has a smooth texture while the top is porous, making injera an ideal edible utensil for scooping up traditional foods. 3
In Ethiopia and Eritrea, people traditionally eat communally from a shared platter with their hands. A large injera “crepe” is served on the platter. A variety of lentil, meat and vegetable stews seasoned with berbere spices, as well as salads, are placed on the injera. Rolled strips of injera are also provided, which are torn and used to grasp bites of the stews and salads. The platter injera soaks up the flavor of the food, and after the food is gone, this injera is also eaten, signaling the end of the meal.
Traditionally during a meal with friends and family, it was a common custom to feed each other morsels of food wrapped in injera as an expression of love and friendship. This is called a gursha. When one feeds oneself from the shared platter, it is considered polite to eat small bites. A gursha, on the other hand, is usually much larger, filling the hand of the giver from finger tip to palm, and the recipient’s mouth from front to back.
The first gursha is customarily given to elderly and guests as a show of respect. Members of the same sex may give gursha to each other or to male and female relatives. But it is considered a grave infraction if a man approaches another’s wife and offers gursha. Gursha can also be a way that two revelers can flirt with each other. The recipient will often return the gursha.
There are several fables regarding the origins of gursha. While varying to some degree, they share the central idea of “me to you and you to me.” A group of starving people sit around a spread of food. Their utensils are long spoons that, no matter how hard they try, are too long to reach their mouths. One of them has an idea: “Me to you and you to me.” The group then feeds each other. The fables suggests that if we don’t help each other, we will all suffer the consequences.
Studies indicate that while Ethiopians’ today still favor traditional cuisine, they prefer individual plates rather than a shared one with gursha. Those who do still enjoy gursha primarily say it is because it is a cherished way to express affection. 4, 5
Teff is a good source of carbohydrate, calcium and fiber. It also contains magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, copper, zinc, and thiamin. Teff has all eight essential amino acids, and is 10% protein. Teff is gluten-free. 6
Watch videos about Teff and Ethiopian Food:
This Fall’s Recipe is for Teff Injera. Ethiopian food is usually eaten “family style,” making it a fun meal for the holidays. Many dietary needs and tastes can be accommodated due to the diverse array of Ethiopian dishes.
There are many contemporary ways to enjoy injera as well. Injera can be eaten with foods usually paired with sourdough, naan, tortillas or pancakes. For a quick snack, spread injera with hummus, bean dip, nut butter, or jam. Stale injera can be cut into strips and added to stir-fries.
Links to our favorite Ethiopian Stew Recipes:
Our injera recipe uses half teff flour and half unbleached wheat flour, but one can use 100% teff for a stronger flavor.
Teff flour can be purchased at many health food stores or online. One can also purchase whole grain teff and grind their own fresh flour using a mill, KitchenAid food grinder attachment, or powerful blender like a VitaMix.
Traditionally injera is fermented using naturally occurring wild yeast in the flour and environment. We use a sourdough starter to help culture the batter with friendly flora, which can help fight off harmful microorganisms. The batter should smell yeasty, with a progressively stronger sour flavor and more bubbles.
If the batter is underfed, it will start to develop a layer of dark liquid alcohol on top. To remedy this scenario, one can pour off the alcohol before stirring and feeding the batter.
For safety, if the batter starts to smell bad or grow mold, do not hesitate to throw it out. Better safe than sorry.
Keep the batter in a warm environment between 75 and 90 degrees F. The inside of a gas oven is a favorite place. The pilot light keeps the batter warm. The oven also protects the batter from drafts and beasts. Take care not to turn on the oven. If the batter temperature exceeds 95F, the yeast will likely perish and the batter will not ferment.
At night, one can also leave the covered bowl of batter on top of a stove set for 200 degrees F, which keeps it within the ideal temperature range. Keeping windows and doors shut, and curtains drawn, also helps keep the temperature from dropping in the night.
For those uncomfortable with home fermentation, the injera batter can be made without fermentation. Simply combine ingredients and immediately cook. Use baking powder instead of baking soda as the batter will not be sour. Those who dislike sour flavors may actually prefer this method.
Cooking large injera can take practice. One may want to start by making “silver dollar” injera, and work up to larger ones. Injera are cooked much like crepes – on one side only. Use a low heat and let the injera bubble, darken and start curling up at the edges before attempting to remove them from the pan. Don’t worry if the bottoms are a little crispy – they’ll soften as they cool. If despite using the above techniques the injera are gummy, simply stir in a bit more flour, baking soda, or flip them and cook them on both sides. If the injera are thick, dense and brittle, add a little more water. The flatter the pan, the easier it is to remove the injera.
Love fermented breads? Adopt a Sourdough Starter Pet. A “happy” starter will live a long bubbly life, and improve with age.
The first steps of our recipe are creating the Teff Sourdough Starter. To keep some of it as a “pet,” simply pour ~2 cups of starter into a clean glass one quart mason jar, before adding the additional flour, water, leavening and salt to the rest of the starter in the bowl to make the batter.
If one is using the starter for cooking every day, choose a warm place for the starter pet’s home, like in the kitchen on top of, or next to, the oven. Every day use 1 cup of bubbly starter, and replace it with a half cup flour, half cup 85F water feeding.
If one is taking a break from cooking fermented breads for a few days, put the starter pet in the fridge. Feed it once a week by putting it back in its warm home and feeding it for one or two days (as above). After a day or two, it’s ready to cook with again, or return to chilling in the refrigerator.
Fermentation Time: 3 days
Cooking Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 10 – 20 Injera
3 cups teff flour (total)
3 cups unbleached wheat flour (total)
1 packet wild yeast sourdough starter
6 cups 80-90F water (total)
1/2 teaspoon salt
optional: 1/8 teaspoon baking soda or 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
large bowl or pot
clean cloth or pot lid
dry ingredient measuring cups
wet ingredient measuring cups
large non-stick pan
pan lid or large baking sheet
spatula or flat plate
large plate or baking sheet
- The first step to injera is to make the teff sourdough starter. Combine 1 cup teff flour, 1 cup unbleached flour, 1 packet of wild yeast sourdough starter, and 2 cups 80-90F water in bowl with spoon.
2. Cover with clean towel, cheese cloth, or loose fitting lid.
3. Set in warm place to maintain a temperature between 75-90F for ~4 hours. Check the batter temperature periodically throughout the process with the calibrated thermometer to ensure it remains at the ideal temperature.
4. After ~4 hours, feed the starter by stirring in 1/2 cup teff flour, 1/2 cup unbleached flour, and 1 cup of 80-90F water. Return to warm environment.
5. After another ~4 hours, repeat the above feeding. Return to warm environment.
6. After second feeding, let starter rest for ~24 hours in warm environment.
7. After 24 hours the starter should be showing signs of life. The starter will likely be bubbling, have a yeasty sour aroma, and may be a little puffy or foamy. If one wishes to adopt a Teff Sourdough Starter Pet for continued fermented bread making, set aside 2 cups in a clean one quart mason jar before adding the final ingredients.
8. The teff sourdough starter is now ready to become injera batter with the addition of the final ingredients. Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups teff flour, 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour, and 3 cups 80-90F water. Let rest a final 6-8 hours.
9. When ready to cook the injera, stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and optional 1/8 teaspoon baking soda into the batter.
10. Ladle some batter into the wet ingredient measuring cup.
11. Heat non-stick pan over low heat.
12. Slowly pour the batter from the measuring cup into the pan to form injera. Cover pan with a lid to help the top of the injera cook completely.
13. When the surface bubbles have burst, the injera has deepened in color, and the edges are starting to curl slightly, remove the injera and transfer it to a plate.
14. Repeat for the rest of the injera batter.
15. Plate an injera on the serving platter. Decorate the platter injera with favorite toppings. Roll some injera to pull pieces from to pick up bites of food.
16. Enjoy with friends and family!
6. USDA Nutrient Database