Beyond Grandma’s Kitchen
Teff, injera and their new global market.
I’m not quite hooked on the stuff, but sometimes I’ve got to have it. On any given day in my diaspora life, I’ll be stunned into compliance and stop at an Ethiopian store to buy mixed-flour injera prepared in Canada, or splurge for the real deal: a sealed bag of pure teff injera, imported from Ethiopia.
Unsealed, it frees a waft of subtle aroma, transporting me instantly to my grandmother’s kitchen. When she lifts the lid of her mitad, a billowing cloud of nutty steam envelops us before revealing a perfectly round sheet of spongy, thin injera. Blinking with its thousand “eyes,” the sour bread begs to be peeled off the scalding clay, cooled on a wicker sefed woven to size, and then draped over a wide-mouthed mesob basket.
Nowadays, grandma’s kitchen is a registered business named after her and one of her daughters, who manages day-to-day operations. Equipped with four mitad, Yimegnushal & Yeshi Injera sells the desired floppy, feather-light sheets to area residents and small merchants. Larger bakeries ship injera by the thousands to members of the diaspora, for whom making pure teff injera remains a losing battle — a situation not helped by the fact that, due to rising international demand, the teff grain (injera’s only ingredient besides water) is banned from leaving the country.
Teff was exclusive to its native Ethiopian Highlands for millennia, thanks to geographic and cultural isolation. According to folklore from the Aksum region, where teff has been cultivated since between 4,000 and 1,000 B.C., the ancient Ethiopians’ king and god was a dragon whose descendants ruled for centuries, exacting terrible tributes, until a northerner named Gebgebo trapped the ruling dragon and split its head with an axe. On the spot where the blood spilled, the first teff plant grew.
That teff wasn’t named after the dragon-slayer is probably due to its size. Referring to the smallest grain in the world, early farmers must have said “teffa” (“it is lost,” in Amharic) so often that the word became synonymous with the grain. Of the 350 species of lovegrass — the plant genus to which teff belongs — only teff is cultivated for food, using an old method of scattering handfuls of seed over moist loose soil. Six months later, after the backbreaking harvest work of stalk drying, threshing by man and beast, and manual winnowing is complete, the grain is ground whole for transforming into injera.
The Growing Demand for Teff
At Yimegnushal & Yeshi’s, every day is injera day. Tall blue barrels containing injera batter at different stages testify to the subtle, days-long alchemy of fermenting and diluting a basic mixture of teff flour and water to foamy readiness for baking. Each morning, preheated mitads (clay-topped griddles) await, polished with a dusting of ground cabbage seed to prevent sticking.
So high is the current demand for injera that the teff yield from more than 6 million farmers barely meets local, much less diaspora, needs — and certainly not that of the new global market, following the discovery of teff’s gluten-free, ancient-grain status. To prevent domestic shortage and inflated prices from so much of the nutrient-rich grain leaving the country, the government in 2006 put a stop to exports of raw teff grain, at least until production can catch up.*
Foreign interest in teff dates to the 1800s, but mass cultivation abroad began in the 1980s in Idaho with Wayne Carlson, a former Peace Corps volunteer to Ethiopia. His company, Maskal Teff, is the oldest among farms in at least 25 states across the United States. Smaller teff farms also exist in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Australia to supply teff to health-conscious foodies, the gluten intolerant, and injera addicts worldwide.
Despite this, the grain remains an “orphan crop” — one that is under-researched and underfunded due to its regional rather than global importance — according to Ayele Gebreamlak Ayetenfisu, the director of the Teff and Rice Value Chain at Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency. Since 2011, the ATA been tasked with raising the sector’s productivity to meet local demand and then compete globally.
Growth controlled by teff’s ancestral custodians prevents loss of genetic varieties of the grain, and the royalties from capitalizing on such, to foreign interests. One focus area of the ATA is transitioning farmers, the original teff production experts, to row planting: a more methodical, economical joining of seed and land than traditional scattering. Sample results having shown a voluminous, robust crop, and expanded rollout is planned. Eventually, says Ayele, Ethiopia can produce a surplus for its own international brand of teff-based products.
In Ethiopia’s current market, however, teff is so expensive that the traditional grading system — magna (white), sergegna (mixed) and key (brown), of which magna used to be the most expensive — has been modified to include a new fourth grade, liyu magna (very white), in the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange.
Yet the injera business remains hot. Gone are the days when counting injera was taboo and buying from outside considered shameful. Urbanites buy by the piece for reasons ranging from tiny condos, a culture of convenience, or the inability to afford bulk teff. Universities, hotels and resorts contract out the work. Part-time bakers can gross 20,000 birr monthly (nearly US$1,000), while big players like Mama Fresh sell at prepaid dollar prices to the lucrative Ethiopian diaspora market where, thanks to Ethiopian Airlines’ numerous daily direct flights, fresh injera reaches the same day it leaves the mitad.
In Toronto, Ethiopian shop owner Desta sells many brands of mixed-flour injera — teff cut with buckwheat, barley, wheat or fenugreek — that are delivered to his store by independent distributors, alongside pure teff injera imported weekly from his Addis supplier.
Nunu, owner of the eponymous restaurant in Toronto, offers Desta’s pure teff injera to customers as an extra-cost substitution to her in-house mixed-flour injera. She remembers when the mystery of making pure teff injera in the West was suffered communally among early immigrants, who made do with self-rising flour, using frying pans or early-model U.S.-made mitads with faulty wiring.
“We would end up with something that was injera only in name. But now, we have injera,” she says, having arrived at a workable recipe and the Wass Mitad, 15 years in the making by Washington, D.C.–based engineer Wassie Mulugeta. And yet, the quest for pure teff injera made in the West continues. Nunu’s husband, Chris, recently consulted gluten experts in academia about why it is so impossible to duplicate, to no avail.
Sparing No Effort for Injera
Years ago, Desta imported pure teff injera only for a few older, diabetic Ethiopian immigrants. Today, he brings 2,000 pieces weekly, but customers haven’t all caught on. “People have become addicted to the mixed-flour injera because it has sugar and salt,” he says. “It is hard to go back to that pure sour taste. The older people age 40 and up will eat nothing but the original, but the kids won’t touch it.”
For Nunu, like most, it’s a bit of both. She savors the taste of pure teff injera but gets heartburn if she eats it constantly. Another common complaint, says distributor Adisalem of Tenama Injera, is that it is thin as lace, hardly filling. Asefa of Zemen Injera is troubled by how easily teff injera spoils and is discarded due to improper refrigeration.
Distributors have it hard. Kalkidan Bekele, a 17-year veteran laments, “The business is very moody. Even the weather can make the day’s batch unfit to distribute.” And while many urbanites in Ethiopia have become perfectly at ease with buying their injera from stores, diaspora customers distrust too-perfect commercial mixed-flour injera. Because of how hard it is to get such a result, folks suspect the use of secret ingredients by commercial bakers — including, as Washington, D.C., rumor once had it, even pharmaceuticals.
The majority of diaspora eat homemade injera, using closely-guarded recipes achieved after years of trial and error. Even then, though, results fluctuate due to altitude, water, baking surface, teff variety and secondary flour. Many have long accepted that there has to be some mystery factor yet to be identified, because the injera hardly ever comes out the same way twice.
But for those who love it, no effort is too much. Going without simply cannot be done. “Like asking Indians to give up rice,” says Desta, whose customers come from even the Yukon to stock up. A resident of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area, who drives 30 miles for injera, says, “When I am really hungry and am desperate for food, it is the first type of food that pops into my mind.” Another adds, “I once craved firfir (injera scrambled with stew) early in the morning but didn’t have injera at home. I drove around for an hour trying to find an Ethiopian grocery store that opened earlier than 9 a.m. I didn’t find one, so I waited outside of one until it opened.”
Whenever my own injera mood strikes, I find myself wishing I had paid attention on childhood injera days, and I resolve to memorize everything that goes on in grandma’s kitchen next time I’m in Ethiopia. But she won’t hear of it, saying, “Why exhaust yourself attempting the impossible and unnecessary?” After all, in the grand injera chain of being, everyone has a role — and mine is eating.