Injera Inspiration

Fermented teff grain is the secret to the flexible, spongy flatbread that serves as plate and utensils alike in traditional Ethiopian fare.

| Winter 2019


I first fell in love with Ethiopian cuisine when we lived near Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. A quick metro trip would whisk us from the suburb where we lived to any number of exotic (by my country girl standards) destinations. One of those was the vibrant, multicultural Adams Morgan neighborhood. Walking the colorful streets, you could pick from any number of Ethiopian restaurants, from whose doors wafted incredible, mouthwatering aromas. If you peeked in, you’d typically see small, round, glass-covered wicker tables. Servers would set table-sized platters covered with an overlapping curtain of beige, crepe-like discs of Ethiopian bread, or injera, heaped with an assortment of thick stews and seasoned veggies, on those tables. Diners would then tear off sections of the velvety flatbread and use them to grab mouthfuls of the savory offerings — eating it all in one deft bite. Upon my first taste of these tangy, bubble-studded, impossibly tender fermented breads, I became a convert.

During one of those visits to Adams Morgan, I bought an Ethiopian cookbook, a bag of lentils, and a jar of spice mix, but it was years before I could find the key ingredient for making injera: ground teff seed. Annual teff grass (Eragrostis tef) thrives in the arid conditions of the Horn of Africa, which today includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia, with Sudan just to the west. Teff is one of the most ancient cereal crops, believed to have been cultivated as early as 4000 B.C. by the Abyssinian civilization and others. The poppy-seed-sized seeds vary in color from a deep russet to a pale ivory and are packed with nutrients. Teff is the most cultivated crop in Ethiopia, and its popularity, in good part, is because it’s gluten-free. Its gluten-free status has led teff to be cultivated in many other parts of the world, including the United States.

Teff and Beyond

Despite its popularity and prominence as a crop, teff is labor-intensive to grow and harvest, making it an expensive grain. Even in the best conditions, yields are low when compared to other cereal crops, such as wheat. For this reason, most injera served in restaurants, and even made in Ethiopian homes, is only partially made with teff flour. To cut production time, many recipes also completely skip the natural fermentation process, using a leavening agent, such as yeast or baking soda, and even adding club soda to create effervescence. If you’ve tasted injera prepared with part white flour and made bubbly by means of a shortcut, it was probably tasty, but it would’ve lacked the nutrition and heartiness of injera made from fully fermented, 100 percent teff.  If you’re on a gluten-free diet, blended grain versions might not be acceptable.

For this article, I made gluten-free injera from 100 percent teff flour; the recipe will also work with a blend of teff and brown rice flour. The more teff the recipe contains, the heartier the flavor. The more rice flour, the milder. I also included a variation using whole-grain organic corn flour or masa, and a teff and flaxseed version. Both corn (maize) and rice flours, as well as a variety of others, such as sorghum and barley, are traditionally used in Ethiopia to make the teff flour go a bit farther. Typically, 100 percent teff injera is saved for special occasions, but it may be served regularly in wealthier households.

Unlocking the Nutrients in Teff

Teff is an ancient grain that many consider a superfood. The success of Ethiopian long-distance runners is a much touted result of teff. The whole grains can be cooked as a porridge or used in stews and other dishes. A quarter-cup of uncooked teff has 7 grams of protein and contains 10 percent of an adult’s recommended daily amount of calcium, vitamin B6, and zinc; a whopping 20 percent of the recommended iron; and 25 percent of the recommended magnesium, in addition to a plethora of other micronutrients.



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