Injera, the fermented sourdough crepe that’s eaten with most Ethiopian food (some folks say it makes up the bulk of the Ethiopian diet) can be made from all sorts of milled grains, including barley, corn, rice, millet, sorghum, and wheat. However, it’s most commonly made from teff.
If you’re not familiar with teff, it’s a teeny tiny grain that’s a powerhouse of nutrition. Despite its diminutive size, teff packs a lot of protein, calcium, fiber, and iron. It’s also gluten-free, a boon for gluten-intolerant folks like me. It comes in several colors, including white or ivory, red, and dark brown. It tastes great and is the grain I reach for when I want to add a whole-wheat vibe (without the wheat) to baked goods.
Teff is native to Ethiopia, and that’s where you used to have to go to get it. However, over the last several years, teff has gained popularity in the West, in part because of the attention heirloom and ancient grains have received, and also because of a growing interest in gluten-free diets. Several farms in the United States have started growing teff, and they seem to be the main domestic suppliers nowadays (even the teff flour I buy at the Ethiopian store down the street comes from one of these farms).
I hope I don’t shatter hearts when I tell you that most commercial injera in North America is rarely made from pure teff flour and thus is usually not glutenfree. Since teff is quite expensive, teff injera is commonly made with the addition of other grains, such as wheat or barley flours, to keep the cost down. Fortunately, I’ve noticed an increasing number of restaurants beginning to offer pure teff injera for an extra charge, though some might require twenty-four hour’s notice. With the rising popularity of gluten-free diets, my hope is that this trend will grow. However, if gluten makes you sick, be aware that restaurants often purchase injera from wholesalers and may not realize their injera contains anything other than teff, or they may not know that barley and wheat contain gluten. So be a careful consumer and ask the right questions before you dig in.
I make my own 100 percent teff injera at home. In addition to it being wonderfully gluten-free, it has great flavor and the perfect amount of tang, which offers a good counterbalance to hot spices and heavy stews and sauces. Making injera at home takes a little finagling and time, but once you figure it out, you’ll be storing jars of ersho (teff sourdough starter) in the back of your fridge like a champ. To get started, you’ll need to stock up on teff flour and spend a few days fermenting a sourdough starter.
Apparently, teff is the only grain to have a symbiotic relationship with yeast, which makes sense since, traditionally, teff starter is made with only teff flour and water. However, I’ve found this starter works best when I add active yeast. I’ve read that symbiotic yeast only flourishes on freshly ground teff flour, and that may be why the addition of active yeast is a necessary boost.
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Reprinted with permission from Teff Love by Kittee Berns and published by Book Publishing Co., 2015.