Claire A Davies
December 09, 2019
The staple bread injera is at the very heart of Ethiopian culture. It’s a bread like no other, more of a pancake, the size and shape of a small bicycle wheel. Usually served flat on a round plate with sauces on top, it can also be folded into triangles for transportation, cut and made into rolls or torn into pieces and mixed with strips of meat in a lunchbox.
Injera has a sour, fermented taste similar to hops. Its texture is spongy, all the better to soak up the spiced sauces and to be torn up into pieces and used as an eating implement.
Ethiopians cannot be without it and do not feel sufficiently full without injera at a meal. Pasta is popular since the Italian occupation but is often served on top of a plate of injera. Ethiopians sometimes scoop up a mouthful of food and feed it to someone else as an expression of love, the mouthful being known as a gorsha.
Separate Ethiopians from their injera and they mourn. Quite simply, injera is emotional.
Injera inspires a range of contradictory emotions to visitors. Tourists approach their first meal curiously and cautiously, eventually conceding a tolerance to the grey, flannel-like discs, a process that can eventually turn to love. Persistence is worthwhile. It’s like acclimatising to Ethiopia’s altitude: it feels strange at first but after a while, it feels good.
Injera comes from teff, probably the world’s smallest grain at just a millimetre in size. A recent attempt by a Dutch company to establish a patent on teff lead to a vigorous and successful campaign from Ethiopians to block this act of appropriation. One of the earliest plants to be farmed by man,teff is thought by scholars to have originated in Ethiopia somewhere between 1000 and 4000 BC although its exact origins remain unclear.
Grains come in white and dark (red) forms, thus there are pale (“white”) and dark forms of injera. Different grains are also mixed leading to shades in between known as sergenga. After harvesting, the grains are ground into flour and then fermented, a process which takes several days.The mixture is then poured into a large circular pan known as a mitad. Traditionally this is done over a fire although electric injera cookers are now in widespread use.
The real marvel of injera comes from its health benefits. Dark injera is felt to have the higher nutrient content although it is the paler form favoured by the rich. Teff is now sought after globally as a superfood thanks to its low glycaemic index, calcium and zinc content. It is also high in iron, a precious commodity in Ethiopia that can help alleviate the anaemia left by malarial attack. The grain is also gluten free, a global trend that Ethiopians have cottoned onto by advertising this to newcomers on billboards in the arrivals hall in Addis.
No wonder now that teff flour retails at £8 a kilo in the UK (about 10 US dollars), a price that shocks most Ethiopians. Luckily for the diaspora, Ethiopian Airlines has a generous 40 kg luggage allowance and so people simply full a suitcase with teff flour in Addis before flying back home.
While the health food world is making teff into muffins, porridge or waffles, the real benefits of teff come from eating it in Ethiopia. Teff does not ferment well abroad. Thus pure teff injera is rare outside of Ethiopia. Fermentation problems, time and expense, mean that other substances such as rice flour, wheat or sorghum are often added. Sometimes an injera eaten abroad may only contain a little teff (and perhaps even a little brown food colouring to make it appear authentic).
For the full benefit, injera needs to be enjoyed in country. As a fermented food, a daily regular dose of injera also assists maintaining a healthy balance of gut flora to ward troublesome bacteria away. Ethiopians will eat injera for breakfast, lunch and dinner but one serving a day should suffice for a visitor.
Claire A Davies blogs at www.dispatchesfromethiopia.com
Follow her on Twitter : @dispatchesfrom1
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