Feasting with the Ancients

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IMAGINE yourself sitting down to an Ethiopian meal roughly 2,000 years ago, when the country we now call Ethiopia went (long story short) by the name of Aksum. What food would you find on the table in front of you? And would you grab it with injera the way Ethiopians do today?

All we really can do is imagine, for these ancient Ethiopians didn’t leave behind any cookbooks – nor many written records at all about what they ate and how they ate it. The record gets a little bit clearer beginning about 800 years ago (or so), and starting in the late 19th Century, copious documents and historic accounts clearly show the grandeur of a royal banquet.

So it takes a bit of archaeological and literary detective work to piece together what the ancient Aksumite and Ethiopian royals ate.

(The images in this post are engravings of Ethiopian culinary life taken from books written in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Click each photo to enlarge it and get a closer look at how European visitors saw the customs of the Ethiopian meal.)

A banquet at the palace of Emperor Menilik (1889-1913)

A banquet at the palace of Emperor Menilik (1889-1913)

We know from various historic accounts and archaeological digs that Aksumites drank the honey wine t’ej and harvested many of the crops that we now see on the Ethiopian table. In his 1995 book, People of the Plow, a study of Ethiopian agriculture mostly since 1800, James McCann of Boston University says that teff, “the highest prestige food” in the agricultural life of Aksumites, “requires intensive seedbed preparation possible only with the ox plow.”

The first solid evidence of an ox-plow device in Ethiopia comes from cave art “tentatively attributed to the first millennium B.C.” This means that pre-Aksumite culture could only have began cultivating teff no more than 3,000 years ago.

McCann further asserts that “the evidence of both language and plant biology indicates that the Ethiopian highlands were a center of secondary dispersal for a wide variety of crops,” including barley, wheat, sorghum, chick peas, lentils, and of course, teff – although there’s some dispute as to when this grain so essential to making injera came into the diet.

Injera cooking in a mitad (left) and spicy wot cooking in a clay pot

Injera cooking in a mitad (left) and spicy wot cooking in a clay pot

This is where the archaeologist Richard Wilding takes up the story. Based on findings of an early 1970s dig in which he participated, Wilding reveals the discovery of some Aksumite mitads, placing them in the late fifth or sixth centuries, thus some time before 600 A.D. The mitad is the large round clay cooking surface on which Ethiopians make injera to this day, and “the presence or absence of so basic a piece of specialized equipment,” Wilding writes, “might tell much of the diet and the principal cereal crop of Aksum.”

Wilding found only three pieces of mitad. They’re 30 to 40 centimeters in diameter – that’s 12 to 16 inches, the size of a piece of injera – and they’re shaped like the mitad that Ethiopians use today, with a flat surface and raised edges.

Finally, Wilding makes it clear: “Unless a metal tray was used in the early period, only to be replaced later by pottery, the cereal teff was not used for the manufacture of injera until the late fifth or sixth century, and not extensively until after that date.” He further notes that “none of the items so far recovered in metal from Aksumite sites has been at all appropriate to the service performed by a mitad,” and he admits that it’s “tempting to associate the appearance of the mitad with the initial extensive use of teff as a staple cereal.”

After the fall of Aksum, political turmoil consumed the emerging nation of Ethiopia, and leaders sometimes came and went as quickly as the evening meal. But in the closing decades of the 12th Century, a ruler came to the throne who established some stability – at least, for a long enough while to create a culinary mythology.

In 17th Century Ethiopia, a servant feeds a nobleman at a banquet.

In 17th Century Ethiopia, a servant feeds a nobleman at a banquet.

He was King Lalibela, and he ruled from 1181 until his death in 1221. He, too, failed to leave written records of his culinary tastes, busy as he was holding on to power and establishing his Agaw Dynasty. But we do have one clue – if we can call it that – about Lalibela’s dinner table.

In his 1892 book Vie de Lalibala (“Life of Lalibela”), Jules Perruchon reprints and translates an Amharic manuscript about the king’s 12th Century life. The manuscript resides in the British Museum and dates to the 15th or 16th Century, so it’s more oral than documented history. It’s also a glorious hagiography, filled with stories of the king’s humility, kindness and reverence for God.

Lalibela’s diet gets little mention. At one holiday meal, he eats bread dipped in “a bouillon of herbs.” He dips two pieces – then generously gives the third morsel to his servant. This sound suspiciously like the way we eat Ethiopian food today, right down to the gursha – that is, the placing of food in someone’s mouth by someone else at the table. Could this bouillon be some sort of wot, and could the bread be injera? The Amharic manuscript doesn’t contain either word, and so we can only imagine.

But it does use the word hbst for bread, and that’s intriguing: It’s the ancient Ge’ez word for manna, and some Portuguese narratives of the 16th and 17th centuries clearly describe injera, giving us further reason to speculate that the hbst of Lalibela is the injera of the Ethiopia that followed.

An early 19th Century kitchen compound in the city of Adwa

An early 19th Century kitchen compound in the city of Adwa

We also learn that Lalibela set a table “well garnished” with wine and, not surprisingly, mes, or honey wine. This continues the potable tradition begun by the Aksumites in the third century A.D.

From around the same time as Lalibela comes one of the more fanciful records of Ethiopian food. Tekle Haymanot (c. 1215-1313) was a famous Ethiopian monk who founded a monastery in Shewa. In a 1997 essay about him, the scholar Tesfaye Gebre Mariam recalls an ancient tale of the cleric’s miraculous powers: When Tekle’s mother needs grain to celebrate a religious festival, “he gives her all she requires through miracles,” Tesfaye writes, “and when she lacks homemade beer to give to a guest, he turns pure water into beer.” Not exactly a t’alla recipe that we might follow today.

In the centuries between the reign of Lalibela and the emergence of modern Ethiopia, historic documents reveal the rituals involved in matters related to food. Cattle was very important, but even if you owned a cow that you planned to use for food, a commoner couldn’t slaughter his cow without permission from the local ruler, the eminent Ethiopian scholar Richard Pankhurst reports in his 1986 essay, “The Hierarchy of the Feast: The Partition of the Ox in Traditional Ethiopia.” No doubt the ruler got a portion of the slaughtered animal in thanks for his permission, Pankhurst speculates.

This fascinating essay details every aspect of a royal banquet, which was highly ritualized. Each part of the slaughtered cow produced a cut of meat with a name of its own: tannash sega, or “small meat,” came from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters, the gwaden dabit were “five of the foremost ribs,” the engeda is “a prime fleshy part, taken from the muscle close to the thigh bone,” and shent comes from “the side of the backbone as far as the shoulder.” Of course, the revelers ate all of this meat raw.

One of Emperor Menilik’s servants carries injera in a basket on his head and wot sauce in a jug by his side

One of Emperor Menilik’s servants carries injera in a basket on his head and wot sauce in a jug by his side.

Emperor Yohannes IV ended this practice in the mid-19th Century, although in some Ethiopian cultures, the custom persisted: Local rulers might be entitled to the animal’s lesana manka (the tongue and breast meat), if a member of his town slaughtered an animal for a special occasion, like a marriage, funeral or holiday celebration.

Pankhurst’s essay – his information drawn from historic accounts – explores just how law and custom prescribed who got what upon the slaughtering of an ox. People of the highest ranks got such prized cuts as the “small meat” from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters,” or the “large meat” from the hip bone with part of the buttock. These succulent steaks were just some of the portions that went to the aristocrats, and it’s hard to believe there was very much of the good stuff left after the upper classes got their tributes.

But the most valuable document for understanding what ancient Ethiopian emperors ate is the serata gebr, which means “the order of the feast” or “the proceedings of the royal banquet.” It describes the royal banquet, or gebr, of Ethiopia’s middle ages, as early as the reign of Amda Seyon I, who ruled from 1314-1344. The document is written partly in an earlier form of Amharic and partly in Ge’ez. This all makes translating it a challenge.

In a seminal 1988 essay, the German scholar Manfred Kropp published a manuscript of the serata gebr and, in an essay preceding the text, discussed its contents and revelations. But his essay doesn’t translate the document word for word, and since then, no one has published a full translation, although Kropp continues to work with the text.

A late 17th Century feast. In the background, two men cut meat from a live cow.

A late 17th Century feast. In the background, two men cut meat from a live cow.

Kropp can’t say exactly when his text of the serata gebr was written, but it seems to have come from the era of Zara Yakob (1434-1468). Its mention of Amda Seyon, who ruled a century earlier, documents how royal traditions survived from emperor to emperor.

Kropp’s serata gebr presents detailed instructions for preparing a royal banquet and includes many anecdotes about daily life in the emperor’s court. The text “gives all sorts of details about the complicated procedures in the royal kitchen and household,” and Kropp speculates that the information might have come from the two top officers charged with supervising the procedures. “In general,” Kropp says, “regulations of this kind were transmitted orally,” so a text like the serata gebr is a rare and valuable resource.

The document provides “a detailed list of the daily royal table, which is astounding for its variety of bread, vegetables, and drink.” It describes “yä-Afreng-enjera, ‘foreign, European bread,’ in regulations dating from the time of Baeda Maryam (1468-1478). The preparation of any of this food is the task of a special cook or brewer bearing the respective title.”

The presence of European-style bread in the serata gebr shows that the earliest Western explorers had already begun to influence the country, but not so much that it co-opted the traditional Ethiopian way of eating.

Full menus appear in the serata gebr, and they include mogarya, a hard bread used as a dish; a vessel filled with wot; injera, a bread made of teff; and rations of beer and t’ej (called sägg in the ancient language), sometimes served in vessels of silver or gold.

A 19th Century woman in the Samen Mountains prepares a meal  with a mesob (basket) beside her.

A 19th Century woman in the Samen Mountains
prepares a meal with a mesob (basket) beside her.

According to Kropp, these banquets took place over two days, and “only the highest-ranking officials and royals were permitted to eat with knifes.” This implies that others ate without cutlery. Meals were served on a gebeta, a large round tray, just as they are today, another indication that the revelers scooped up their food with injera. Lower-level people ate from plain gebeta, but royalty had theirs adorned with silver and gold.

Thanks to the serata gebr, we know that Ethiopians ate wot with injera and accompanied it with honey wine as early as the beginning of the 14th Century. It seems highly likely that the cuisine and its customs predate this documentation.

In 2006, Kropp reported that Maryam Anza, a stele discovered in the 1940s in northwest Ethiopia, speaks of the rations given to the workers who built it. Kropp translates the writing on the stele like this: “Read what is written here: This stele of the King of Agabo has been transported and erected in Agabo by his people in 15 days of statute-labour while they have been supplied by 520 jars of beer and 20,620 pieces of bread.”

The brief text of the stele offers nothing more specific about the texture of the bread, but Kropp is willing to take the leap of faith. “There is a good chance and probability,” Kropp ventured in 2008, “that along with teff, which is attested in archaeological sites, the preparation of bread has not changed essentially for the last 3,000 years.” So maybe the earliest pre-Christian Aksumites ate injera after all.

Emperor Menilik throws a banquet

Emperor Menilik throws a banquet

Boston University’s McCann is perhaps the world’s foremost scholarly authority on Ethiopian food, and in his 2009 book, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, he writes about a cornerstone moment in Ethiopian culinary history: In 1887, the future Empress Taytu, wife of soon-to-be Emperor Menilik II (1889-1913), organized a banquet to honor Entoto Maryam, a grand new church in the city’s newly founded capital, Addis Ababa.

“The scale of her culinary project was enormous in the slaughtering of over five thousand oxen, cows, sheep and goats,” McCann writes, “stockpiling of clay pots of spiced clarified butter by the hundreds, assembling of spices gathered from the best regions of the new empire. The event also featured the engineering of ‘rivers’ of t’ej that literally flowed into the site on specially made wooden troughs from warehouses uphill from the banquet hall.”

But this was more than just a celebration. According to McCann, Taytu understood that “the assembly of the theater of empire included the invention of cuisine as part of empire and nation.” So her banquet featured an “elaborate use of cooking, expressed in the variety and volume of the dishes prepared, the variety of tastes, and the invention of a particular combination of foods. In making food into ritual, Queen Taytu understood the value of presentation, of sequence, and of the meaning of food and feast as political theater.”

Empress Taytu

Empress Taytu

Her feast lasted for five days, bringing together “tastes, ingredients and aesthetics appropriated from traditions of the highland Christian kingdom and from many local cultures of an emerging multi-ethnic landscape.” Taytu’s effort created a “gastronomic blueprint for a new urban culture,” and McCann asserts: “‘Ethiopian’ food, which emerged on the international stage as a recognized cuisine by the late 20th century, was thus actually the product of a managed historical process of change in Ethiopia itself.”

For his 1970 essay, “The Organization of Menilik II’s Palace and Imperial Hospitality (after 1896),” the eminent Ethiopian scholar Harold Marcus interviewed some very elderly Ethiopians (ages 81 to 106) who had worked in the emperor’s palace during these grand banquets. Here’s some of what Marcus wrote about what went on, according to his aging informants, with my translation of some Amharic words in brackets:

The guebber [banquet] started at 9 a.m. daily. The first group to be fed were the palace guards who, when finished, retired outside to control the waiting crowds and to prepare for Menilik’s ceremonial entrance. The next contingent was the clergy of Addis Ababa, followed by provincial soldiers, merchants, citizens of Addis Ababa, and both male and female palace servants. Menilik was present throughout. The nobles had a special but invariable menu. The first course was champagne and cognac, both of which were supplied profusely. Then to the podium upon which they sat with the emperor were brought small, narrow mesobs, each filled with enough injera and doro dabo [chicken bread] for two people. The first to be served wot were the tasters, usually three high-ranking officials. Then male servants from the siga bet [butcher shop] and other palace organizations brought in various wots, alicha merek [mild broth], dried shredded beef stew (minchet abish), cooked spiced strips of lamb (infellet), injera soaked in merek (fit-fit) and brundo [raw meat].

Meanwhile, waves of people had come in and out of the guebber at approximately hourly intervals. They were served at long wooden tables with one garay [ordinary piece of bread] and one manya [white] teff injera, one red pepper stew (kai wot) with beef, one alicha merek, brundo, one kubaya [glass] of t’alla [homemade barley beer] and one kubaya of t’ej (of lesser quality than that give to the upper classes). Whatever food was left after between 10,000 and 15,000 people had eaten that day was given to palace workers. Since there was usually a great deal, they could eat as much as they wished, but they could take nothing home except the remaining brundo, which all participants at the guebber could take with them if they desired. As can be imagined, people pushed and shoved, and there were always more people waiting to be fed than could easily be handled. Once inside, however, and in the presence of the emperor, feasters were subdued and polite. Before each took his seat, he bowed to Menilik, who sat in the center of the room at the front on a dais. The informants talked about the grandeur of these occasions and of the wealth Menilik must have had in order to feed so many people.

Although the history of Ethiopian cuisine owes a debt to Taytu, that’s certainly not to say that Ethiopians didn’t eat what we know as “Ethiopian food” before the grand feasts of Taytu and Menilik. In fact, the young French scholar Thomas Guindeuil has joined McCann and Kropp in the field of study.

In his 2012 doctoral dissertation, Text, Cuisine and Politics in 16th Century Ethiopia, Guindeuil assembles a remarkable collection of historical information, original research and scholarly insight exploring Ethiopian cuisine and how it developed over time. It’s the most comprehensive book yet written on the cuisine, and hopefully, Guindeuil will have it translated into English (and, lest I seem like an ugly American, Amharic as well!).

The feast of Tekle Haymanot (c. 1215 – 1313),  a famous Ethiopian monk

The feast of Tekle Haymanot (c. 1215 – 1313), a famous Ethiopian monk

“Contemporary Ethiopian royal chronicles regularly dealt with food,” he writes in an abstract for his text, “almost always in the same stereotypical combination of injera (pancakes made with fermented dough), wot (stew) and beverages such as mead or beer, those being inseparable elements to compose a princely meal. The presence of such elements in royal banquets, which punctuate Ethiopian kings’ chronicles, [. . .] refer to a defined rule for noblemen’s contributions to the king’s table, as defined in a 15th century text, the serata gebr.”

But he also notes that when a Portuguese mission visited Ethiopia in the mid-15th Century, the priest Francisco Alvares reported details of the cuisine that were quite different from the royal chronicles.

“It is striking to read that the first traveler describing an Ethiopian royal banquet experienced something completely different,” Guindeuil writes. “Alvares’ meal was boned and stuffed poultry. Who should the food historian believe?”

In a 2010 essay, Honey and Society in the History of the Kingdom of Ethiopia, Guindeuil writes that “understanding the role played by honey and mead in Ethiopian society is essential to study the making of a social differentiation based on table manners. Honey may appear as a symbol for fertility and wealth in Ethiopian literature, [but] it is first an economical fact in the kingdom from the farm to the international trade. The high economical value of this product has to be related with its role in social interactions or with its medicinal use.” (Read the full essay in French.)

Another Menelik banquet, with an honored place for foreigners  at a table to the left of the emperor

Another Menelik banquet, with an honored place for foreigners
at a table to the left of the emperor

Guindeuil’s 2011 essay, A Culinary Exchange Space Between the Red Sea and the Kingdom of Ethiopia, probes what we can discern about Ethiopian food from the chronicles of people who visited the country.

“The writing of the history of food in the space between the Bay of Massawa [on the Red Sea] and the northern Ethiopian highlands lacks an indigenous written tradition,” he says. “Most of our knowledge about this period stems from travelogues. These sources certainly have the disadvantage of being limited, but they occasionally light on the more practical aspects of gastronomy: cooking, food trade and table manners we would never know without these documents. They allow us to lift the veil on a food reality often expressed in the royal chronicles and hagiographic texts, which constitute the bulk of the written tradition in this country.”

Unfortunately, while the chronicles often describe the foods served at royal banquets, they don’t include recipes, and so an ancient Ethiopian cookbook must remain something we can only imagine.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Teff Talk

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THE WORLD seems to have found teff.

Not bad for the smallest food grain on earth – one piece is the size of a grain of sand – and better yet when you consider that its name derives from the Amharic word yätäfä, which means “lost,” because each grain is so easy to lose if you drop it.

A field of teff in Ethiopia

A field of teff in Ethiopia

Some scholars have even speculated that because teff is so small, Ethiopians cultivated it before other grains: Why would a culture harvest such a tiny grain if it had alternatives? Others doubt this, saying that the hardiness and nutritional qualities of teff account for its ancient cultivation.

No longer just the unique grain needed to make Ethiopian injera, it’s now used as a gluten-free substitute for wheat, suitable for baking everything from cookies and muffins and cobblers to pancakes and pasta. Once available as a food product only from Ethiopia, entrepreneurs in the United States, Australia and Canada now grow and sell it, both for its grain and for its grassy stalk, which makes an excellent livestock forage.

About 300 species of teff grow on several continents, but Ethiopia hosts its greatest diversity. Eragrostis tef, the injera species, almost certainly originated there, although scholars can only speculate about how long ago that happened.

In the binomial nomenclature of science, the full name of the injera teff is Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter. This refers to Attilio Zuccagni, an 18th Century director of the botanical gardens in Florence who first grew teff in Europe, after the Scottish explore James Bruce brought some seeds back with him in 1773; and to Alessandro Trotter, who rediscovered Zuccagni’s 1775 thesis, Dissertazione Concernante Tef, in 1918, and who published articles about teff in 1918 and 1938.

Zuccagni's drawing of teff (1775)

Zuccagni’s drawing of teff (1775)

During the centuries after Zuccagni’s work, teff came to be called by some other scientific names: There was Poa abyssinica (Jacq.), which refers to N.J. Jacquin, the 18th Century botanist who named it (Poaceae is the grass family); or Eragrostis abyssinica (Jacq.) Link, a variation of the current name, adding a reference to the German botanist Johann Heinrich Friedrich Link, who refined Jacquin’s classification. Trotter finally named it Eragrostis tef, and today its full name pays tribute to him and Zuccagni.

Eragrostis tef is the species of Eragrostis native to Ethiopia and grown now in America, although purists will say (and they’re probably right) that the version grown in North American soil doesn’t yield the same taste as native teff. It certainly doesn’t produce the same finished product: In Ethiopia, pieces of pure teff injera are thinner, larger and more sour than the mixed-grain versions found around the world. The diaspora has learned to make do, and New World connoisseurs don’t realize the difference.

In 1978, J.A. Ponti wrote that the ancient people who lived in today’s Ethiopia first cultivated teff from between 1000 and 4000 B.C., even before they cultivated barley. In 1866, the scholar Franz Unger claimed to have found teff seeds in an Egyptian pyramid c. 3359 B.C. and in a Jewish town c. 1300 B.C., but later scholars have said Unger was almost certainly mistaken.

The science of the late 20th Century has documented its history with more certainty, but no scholar will swear that teff existed in pre-Ethiopian, pre-Aksumite cultures much before the late first century A.D., about 2,000 years ago.

And this is one very nutritious grain. A 1997 study by the Biodiversity Institute of Ethiopia, conducted by Seyfu Ketema, found that white, or magna (pronounced “manya”) teff, the kind most popular for making injera, has 56 percent more calcium and 68 percent more iron than wheat. There are also red, black and mixed-seed varieties.

Teff is higher than wheat in a dozen amino acids, especially the essential lysine, and slightly higher in such nutrients as potassium, zinc and aluminum. It contains 11 percent protein, 80 percent complex carbohydrates, and almost four grams of fiber per ounce. Ethiopian athletes believe that teff makes them stronger in competition, so they’ll eat it as injera or as a porridge made from the whole grain.

Stamps commemorating teff and injera

Stamps commemorating teff and injera

Lost Crops of Africa, a book by the National Research Council, asserts that one large piece of injera a day supplies an Ethiopian with enough amino acids to sustain life without another protein source, and two pieces are “sufficient to ensure good health.”

Teff has as much food value, or even more, as grains like wheat, barley and maize “probably because it is always eaten in the whole-grain form: the germ and bran are consumed along with the endosperm,” the institute study says.

The largest grain crop in Ethiopia, its production exceeds the second most common crop, maize, by nearly 16 percent. No other African country grows teff as a significant crop. Some Ethiopians, especially in the country’s poorer western provinces, will eat it several times a day, according to Lost Crops of Africa. “Teff is so overwhelmingly important in Ethiopia,” the book asserts, “that its absence elsewhere is a mystery.”

But now, thanks in part to the rising awareness and popularity of Ethiopian food, teff is catching on, with commercial production taking place in several countries.
Teff grows on stalks of tall reedy grass, and after harvesting the tiny grain, Ethiopians use the leftover stalks as livestock forage. Farmers in the United States have now begun to adopt the plant for this purpose as well.

The name Eragrostis tef comes from Greek and means “grass of love” (eros/love, grostis/grass). Of the nearly 300 genera of Eragrostis, about 43 percent of them seem to have originated in Africa, the Biodiversity Institute reports, with others coming from Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas.

And by the way, magna isn’t the Amharic word meaning white. The name of this teff comes from an Amharic phrase, minigna nech new, meaning (roughly translated) “how white it is.” Although nech means white, the phrase’s first word, minigna, is a pronoun that’s been shortened and corrupted into magna to give this teff its name.

Sifting teff to make injera

Sifting teff to make injera

There are other kinds of teff – sergegna (a mix of white and brown), kay (red) and tiqur (black), for example – and Ethiopians harvest these for injera as well.

There’s also abolse teff, an improved variety being tested and studied in Ethiopia, with good results in early studies based upon its yield and baking quality. Some fields have mixed varieties, and in fact, such mixing often gives the grain its color. But magna teff is most prized, and it’s the kind Ethiopians export – when there isn’t a shortage and a government ban on exports.

Teff thrives from sea level to as high as 2,800 meters (about 1.7 miles), and in various temperatures, soils, terrains and rainfall conditions, although not in places with excessive rainfall. It’s so hearty and easy to grow under the right conditions that in Yemen, it’s called the “lazy man’s crop.” Farmers simply toss some seed into the ground after a flood, then return six weeks later to harvest the grain. Teff grows almost everywhere in Ethiopia, except for the eastern parts of the country, and especially in the vast eastern Hararge province, also known as the Ogaden, an arid, sparsely populated land made up largely of ethnic Somalis.

In English, the word almost always appears as teff rather than tef, although it needn’t: The word in Amharic consists of two letters, the first one a “t’e” (an explosive “t”), and the second one a simple “f.” In fact, just as we sometimes write t’ej to capture the sound of the explosive “t” at the beginning of the word, we might just as correctly write t’ef. But almost nobody does.

As for “injera,” the pioneering Ethiopian language scholar Wolf Leslau claims that the word derives from the ancient Ethio-Semitic verb gagära, which means “to bake.” The more contemporary linguist Chris Ehret says that can’t be so, basing his analysis on the way words and sounds have evolved in Ethio-Semitic languages, and he offers cangara as the older word from which injera sprung.

Teff harvested and milled by The Teff Co.

Teff harvested and milled by The Teff Co.

Teff production in the United States began in the 1980s thanks to the innovation of The Teff Co. of Caldwell, Idaho. The company has grown the grain for more than 25 years, marketing it to the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the U.S. as a product called Maskal Teff. The name means “cross,” and in Ethiopian Christianity, Maskal is a holiday celebrated in late September to mark the finding of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified.

The thriving enterprise is the work of Wayne Carlson, who became acquainted with Ethiopian food and culture in the early 1970s, when he lived and worked in Ethiopia as a biologist. That’s where he learned about teff, which Ethiopians preferred to use to make their injera when they could get it. Back home in Idaho, near the Oregon border, he found the climate and geology of the Snake River Valley area similar to Ethiopia’s fertile Rift Valley, a place where Ethiopians grow teff.

“Both are the result of major dynamics in the earth’s crust, resulting in massive basaltic lava flows and tectonic movements,” Carlson’s website explains. “And both are subjected to hot summers with intense sunlight.” So Carlson thought: “Why not change the direction of cultural influence? Rather than exporting ‘development’ practices to Ethiopia, why not take some wisdom from an ancient culture? From there,” his website says, “it was a small step to contact Ethiopians living in the American metropolitan areas and re-establish the relation between the Ethiopians and their favorite grain.”

He experimented at first with three varieties, and when the Ethiopian population of American began to grow significantly, he saw an investment opportunity. Now, he grows his teff in two varieties, brown and ivory. Teff Co. is privately owned, and Carlson doesn’t discuss its finances or his operation. But The Boston Globe reported in 2004 that he grows about two million pounds of teff grain annually, almost four times what the company grew about a decade earlier, and Dun & Bradstreet estimates its annual sales at $1.2 million. (Take a video tour of The Teff Co.)

In the 21st Century, the growing of teff spread to a good number of universities and their extension programs, which reach out to communities offering advice and guidance on agricultural matters.

A horse enjoys some teff hay

A horse enjoys some teff hay

Since then, teff grass has also become increasingly abundant as a forage for livestock, with more than a dozen states now growing it, usually for forage but sometimes to harvest the grain for making injera. You’ll find fields of teff in Oregon, Kansas, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Virginia, Illinois, Delaware – and soon, maybe in your neighbor’s backyard.

One such place is the 3,000-acre SS Farms, a company in Hydro, Okla., owned by the progressive commercial farmer Dean Smith, who looked into teff when he heard about it, learned that Ethiopians in the U.S. sometimes had a hard time finding it, and soon decided to grow some. He planted 700 acres in 2008 and sold it to Workinesh Spice Blends of St. Paul, Minn., which has made Ethiopian spices and sold them in the U.S. since 1978 (the first to do so). He also harvests the hay for fodder.

In a unique enterprise, the U.S. Agriculture Department provided a grant for a Kansas collective of black farmers, some descendants of African slaves, to grow teff. The effort led to a Civil Rights Achievement Award for a group that fostered the program.

Josh Coltrain, the project coordinator, said he had a hard time at first getting farmers to agree to plant teff with other grain prices so profitably high. In 2008, they planted 80 acres, mainly for the grain, although they looked for a market for the forage grass as well. They sold the grain to Workinesh, which was eager to get as much as they could. Coltrain says he learned about the company’s needs from Smith. Some ill-timed rains damaged productivity a bit, but even so, things went well, and in 2009, Coltrain says they doubled their acreage.

A Cornell University project began in 2002 with funding from the McKnight Foundation and in association with the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization. The scientists sought to increase their yield through genetic manipulation, and in 2006, Ethiopia’s National Variety Release Committee approved a new variety, quncho, for use in Ethiopia. This means more teff and better teff to feed Ethiopians.

One of the bigger companies now growing teff for its grain is Desert Oasis Teff, whose owners, Dave Eckert and John Getto, got some help when they started from Jay Davison of the University of Nevada cooperative extension. The company began to grow so much teff that for a while it sold its product to Teff Co., and it now sells to other teff distributors and injera makers around the country.

But most of the teff grown nationwide still turns into forage because farmers harvest the teff while it’s still green – that is, before it begins to produce the grain used in making injera. The grain heads may just be emerging when it’s cut, but there’s no profit in waiting: In Nebraska, for example, they get three yields from a field by planting the first in late May, the second in early August, and a third in mid-September. All are harvested just as grain heads emerge and well before the grain matures.

Menkir's teff-encrusted talapia

Menkir’s teff-encrusted talapia

That’s not what happens on the teff fields that do business with Menkir Tamrat, a long-time Ethiopian-American who recently made a “very late career change” from his work in the high-tech field “to grow and process high-quality, local, sustainable ingredients for Ethiopian cuisine in the diaspora.” He now grows a variety of foods important to Ethiopian cuisine.

Using seeds imported from Ethiopia, his young but growing enterprise, which he calls Timeless Harvest, produces some varieties of Ethiopian gomen – what we know as collard greens and kale – to make the Ethiopian dish called gomen, and a few varieties of red pepper to make the spices berbere and mitmita. He also creates his own shiro, the delectable Ethiopian dish made from chick peas or yellow peas (among other legumes). And for a number of years now, he’s made Yamatt Tej, which you can find at some restaurants and markets in the San Francisco and Oakland areas.

Menkir’s enterprise dabbling in teff began in 2010 when he bought some in bulk from Desert Oasis Teff. He then grew his own field of organic teff in San Juan Bautista, Calif., during the summer of 2011 in collaboration with a farm there. That trial produced about 600 pounds of grain. In 2012, he tried to expand the project, planting a field of teff in Wheatland, Calif., late in the season. But because of equipment problems, he couldn’t harvest any of the grain – “a total loss of a 10-acre expansion effort,” he says.

So in 2013, Menkir “outsourced my organic teff production to my old reliable northern Nevada growers. They are very far down the learning curve when it comes to growing and harvesting the smallest grain known to man.”

An affable purist when it comes to his native culture’s cuisine, he took on the teff project both to serve a niche and to right a wrong.

Pure teff injera in Ethiopia

Pure teff injera in Ethiopia

“Pure teff injera is too important for the cuisine to pretend that other substitutes are acceptable,” Menkir says. “Wait until U.S. consumers learn that they have not been offered the very best the cuisine has to offer – and then we might see a Henry Ford moment for teff injera at last. The problem might be that the western taste bud may have traveled down the wrong injera path for too long to even care about the superiority of pure teff injera or to adjust to its very subtle sour flavor. They say clean air smells funny if all you have known is polluted air.”

But Menkir is more of an impresario than a baker. For a while, he helped an Ethiopian friend whose wife knew how to make pure teff injera, selling them the teff he got from Nevada. “He tried to make a go of it for about a year and for one reason or other, he never passed 1,200 injera per week at his peak and then threw in the towel.” He’s since found a couple “who produce some excellent teff injera, both white and brown,” and he has some ideas for bringing to the modern home a 12- to 14-inch mitad, the traditional Ethiopian clay device used to make injera. He’ll also continue his teff enterprise by importing teff from Nevada to California and selling it to businesses that want it – both Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian. But he’s never actually made injera himself – at least, not for the marketplace.

“In general, the U.S. consumer demands and is willing to pay for authentic dining experiences in any cuisine,” Menkir says. “Ethiopian food is no exception, and some day soon, someone will ask how many traditional restaurants in Addis would serve the injera served in Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. And we all know the answer is: zero. The field needs to be leveled by making pure teff injera part of the standard offering here, even if I may not be the guy selling it.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Watch Injera: Food of Life, a look at teff and injera made by an American foodie.

 

Watch a video about growing teff a new way in Ethiopia.

 

Watch a video of Americans helping Ethiopian harvest teff in Ethiopia.

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