Injera – Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s golden grain

I came to know about the famous Injera only 10 years ago after meeting some incredible Eritrean friends in the UK and Ethiopian one in Vietnam. With their country, culture and personality, I discovered the richness that inhabits the people of this majestic continent, often forgotten about in the name of poverty. And so blatantly ignored that they once ruled over with their sophistication, culture, arts and wealth of natural resources. What sadly survived is the beauty of their persons and their pride into what they still carry till date, and fortunate we are to have a little glimpse of it through their unique culinary delight in the name of the Injera. Almost every country has its own version of pancakes, but the Eritrean and Ethiopian one is quite …. unusual in all its form. Firstly, unlike many pancakes, it is NOT made of wheat !. It is the result of the fermentation of an ancient grain of our planet called the Teff. This grain is so rare now that almost all of us do not know about it. It requires some very demanding soil quality, climatic conditions and care to grow, which sadly have all dwindled now. When most of the Western Middle Easter region of the Red Sea relied on wheat and barley, the Eritreans and Ethiopians had their bountiful crops of nutritious Teff. They surely were proud of the teff and maybe this also contributed to the well known legend of the Queen of Sheba and her land laden of gold ! … As it the teff surely  has its equivalent in its weight of gold being extremely nutritious, and with its wide cropping, we could wipe the face of malnutrition known nowadays in this unfortunate part of Africa.

There nothing to describe the sight of the pancake made of teff with all the accompaniments displayed in a bright colourful plate. Just like a plate of  feelings one feeds off meeting someone unique. The taste lingers to stay for a long .. long time.

My friend Betty, from Ethiopia confessed to me that she still struggles into making the perfect Injera. But of course, I found out, that was not true. She was perfect material for a ripe homemaker, as thus a young woman’s skill in making this delicious pancake in Ethiopia, would be rated. It is a whole institution in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Eating the Injera is all about sharing human affection. When one is taken into a house as a guest, it is a custom to mouth feed a piece of Injera by each member of the family to the guest. It a blast of taste, flavour, texture yet mopped gently by the gentle soft moist Injera. Just like a true friend mops away all that comes its way in friendship by its very precious affection. Eating the Injera does not fail making an impact, and it certainly leaves an imprint.

Just like it did on me.

Here a quick video tour onto how to make the Injera. (courtesy : Hannah Pool, UK)

The Injera would appear like a large flat pancake made with of Teff, one of the most ancient grains in the world. It rarity and non availability in the West has prompted many of the Eritreans as well as the Ethiopian, who also share the same, to be creative and replace this wonder grain with an amalgam of flour made of other grains. But nothing can match the wonderful lightness and taste of teff.

In making injera, teff flour is mixed with water and allowed to ferment for several days, as with sourdough starter. As a result of this process, injera has a mildly sour taste. The injera is then ready to bake into large flat pancakes, done either on a specialized electric stove or, more commonly, on a clay plate (Amharic mittad, Tigrinya mogogo) placed over a fire. Unusual for a yeast bread, the dough has sufficient liquidity to be poured onto the baking surface, rather than rolled out. In terms of shape, injera compares to the French crêpe and the South Indian dosaias a flatbread cooked in a circle and used as a base for other foods. The taste and texture, however, are quite unique and unlike the crepe and dosai. The bottom surface of the injera, which touches heating surface, will have a relatively smooth texture, while the top will become porous. This porous structure allows the injera to be a good bread to scoop up sauces and dishes.

In Eritrea & Ethiopia, a variety of stews, sometimes salads (during Ethiopian Orthodox fasting, for which believers abstain from most animal products) or simply more injera (called injera firfir), are placed upon the injera for serving. Using one’s right hand, small pieces of injera are torn and used to grasp the stews and salads for eating. The injera under these stews soaks up the juices and flavours of the foods and, after the stews and salads are gone, this bread is also consumed. Injera is thus simultaneously food, eating utensil, and plate. When the entire “tablecloth” of injera is gone, the meal is over. What a wonderful eco-friendly way to eat ! And it makes the perfect couple’s delight … no washing up to do.

In Somalia, at lunch (referred to as qaddo), the main meal of the day, injera might also be eaten with a stew (maraq) or soup.

Injera is eaten daily in virtually every household, and preparing it requires considerable time and resources. In Eritrea and Ethiopia, the bread is cooked on a large, black, clay plate over a fire. This set-up is a stove called a mitad (in Amharic) or mogogo (in Tigrinya), which is difficult to use, produces large amounts of smoke, and can be dangerous to children. Because of this cooking method, much of the area’s limited fuel resources are wasted. But in 2003, a research group was given the Ashden award for designing a new type of stove for cooking injera. The new stove uses available fuel sources (including dung, locally called kubet) for cooking injera and other foods efficiently, saving the heat from the fuel. Several parts are made in the central cities of the countries, while other parts are molded from clay by women of local areas.

Outside of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Plateau, injera may be found in groceries and restaurants specializing in EritreanEthiopian, or Somali foods. It can also be found in Israel where large numbers of Ethiopian (Beta Israel) and Yemeni Jews have settled.

I found it to be easily available in Paris’ main Organic Food Groceries in various forms, but still waiting to see them in the UK. But in the meantime, I keep on practising my Injera making with other flours …. and still enjoy it !

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