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.

What’s For (Ethiopian) Dessert?

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YOU’VE JUST ENJOYED a generous Ethiopian meal, and yet, you still have room for dessert. But not just any dessert: Naturally, you want an Ethiopian dessert. So you ask for the menu and you see your choices: ice cream, baklava, cheesecake, Napoleon, flourless chocolate espresso torte, honey gelato, and of course, the very Ethiopian – tiramisu (or “teramusso” at one place in Washington, D.C.).

So where are the Ethiopian desserts? Nothing that comes from the homeland? Yes, that’s right: Ethiopia is the land of many things, but dessert simply isn’t one of them.

Injera bread pudding at Ras Dashen in Chicago

Injera bread pudding at Ras Dashen in Chicago

“By it’s nature,” an Ethiopian friend told me, “our culture doesn’t have desserts.” So sweets after a meal at an Ethiopian home might be cakes and pastries influenced by Italian cuisine, or even more likely, a trip to a bakery or café – of which there are many in Addis Ababa and other cities – where friends will gather for coffee and talk.

There’s no exact word in Amharic that means “dessert,” so the easiest word to use is tafach, which means “sweets.” Matatamiya comes from a word that means “to make balanced” or “to make tasty,” although in context, it could also indicate an appetizer; and the more literal takatay megeb means “meal follower,” or actually, “follower meal” in Amharic word order – or for a more figurative meaning, “palate cleanser.”

Amharic dictionaries variably use matatamiya, tafach or takatay megeb to translate “dessert.” But some feel the need to explain: “Kewana megeb behwula yemikerb tafach megeb,” offers one loquacious dictionary as its first translation of “dessert.” This phrase means, “After the main meal, [you are] served a sweet meal.” This dictionary’s second word for dessert is simply takatay megeb. Matatamiya is something of a new addition to the language, a European concept that’s come into Ethiopian culture. After a spicy Ethiopian meal, a better accompaniment is a sweet honey wine, like t’ej, or some t’alla, the grainy traditional Ethiopian beer.

Destaya at Ethiopian Diamond in Chicago

Destaya at Ethiopian Diamond in Chicago

This lacuna on the Ethiopian table may be because sugar is largely a 20th Century addition to the culture, says Araya Selassie Yibrehu, a pioneering New York restaurateur and t’ej maker. Once sugar caught on, pastry shops of various nationalities – Italian, Greek, Arabic – began to speckle the landscape of cities and towns, especially in Addis Ababa. Sugar has even found its way into Ethiopia’s honey wine, allowing some t’ej makers to sweeten their brew without using quite as much expensive Ethiopian honey. Purists like Araya would never taint their t’ej this way.

Menkir Tamrat, a connoisseur of his native cuisine, says that the “widespread use of refined sugar in Ethiopia didn’t happen until the ’60s with the establishment of Wenji and Metehara sugar processing plants. But I don’t think this means Ethiopians were sugar deficient. It just didn’t come in the form of dessert. Ethiopians got their sugar fix from sucking on some sugar cane or tinkish (part of the sorghum family with a sweet stem), and probably from some fresh fruits as well. Birz [honey water] was also another source of sugar fix, especially for young kids.”

But there’s another issue at the heart of the Ethiopian dessert dilemma.

An ad for a pastry shop  in Addis Ababa

An ad for a pastry shop
in Addis Ababa

“A formal meal does not necessarily have to follow the three course approach as in Western cuisine,” Menkir tells me. At the Ethiopian table, “as the cuisine evolved, the standard for an excellent meal was formed as having some kind of wot, alicha and some t’ibs when not fasting – no dessert. Elaborate plant-based dishes are served during t’som [fasting] time instead of the meat/dairy routine.”

So Ethiopians have simply never evolved a tradition of after-dinner sweets, which can even ruin the pleasure of the food you’ve just eaten.

“The sweetness in desserts takes away the lingering warm feeling that normally remains in one’s mouth after eating a traditional Abesha [Ethiopian] meal,” Menkir says. “I understand some cuisines mix heat and sweet, but that would be a no-no in Ethiopian cuisine. My taste buds won’t allow me to eat something sweet after an Abesha meal – I don’t know why. The implied cultural whisper has always been that spicy/hot dishes [wots] are the stars of the cuisine, whereas alitcha [non-spicy] dishes are for virgins, wimps or people on medication. I suspect the concept of dessert falls in the later category at best. If dessert was meant to be part of Ethiopian cuisine, we would have had an Amharic word for it.”

Still, the long-time American doesn’t always eat Ethiopian food, which creates a dilemma for him: “One down side to having an Abesha taste bud,” Menkir adds, “is forgetting to leave space for dessert when having a Western meal.”

A pasti bet in Addis

A pasti bet in Addis

One sweet treat enjoyed by Ethiopians is pasti, a pastry made of fried dough that looks a bit like a contorted donut without a hole, sometimes sprinkled with powdered sugar. It’s Italian in origin, but it’s become a part of Ethiopia’s dessert-less indigenous culture. It’s often sold at a pasti bet (house), and you’ll especially find such shops near schools (including colleges) because young people love the treat, so much so that an Ethiopian R&B artist wrote a song about the dessert and featured an Addis Ababa pasti bet in the video.

There’s also the chornaki, another deep-fried, lightly sweetened pasty, crispy hard on the outside, chewy soft in the middle, and about the size of a baseball. So far no one has sung about it. But Menkir remembers eating them when he grew up in Ethiopia. A local market sold them using the name biskut, and “some days, if you missed cafeteria food,” Menkir recalls, “you would get one or two of these things and a hard boiled egg, crack the biskut open, remove some of the soft dough in the center and stuff the egg in. I think we even sprinkled some mitmita on the egg. But I don’t remember it being sweet. There could be sweet and savory variations.”

I found a sweet treat in Hirut Campbell’s cookbook, Traditional Ethiopian Cuisine, that I’ve come to enjoy. It’s made with shembra – that is, chick peas – and she calls it shembra nefro, which means “boiled chickpeas.” But the chick peas are roasted, not boiled, so shembra kolo is a better name for it. Just plain kolo is roasted barley, a very popular crunchy (but not sweet) Ethiopian snack, and the name comes from the verb kola (or qola), which means “to roast.”

Shembra kolo is very easy to make. Begin with a can of chick peas – I use a no-salt-added variety – and drain the liquid from the can. Mix an egg white with one tablespoon of water, and toss the chick peas in the liquid to coat them. Roll the moist chick peas in a bowl containing a quarter cup of sugar and two teaspoons of cinnamon (or more if you like, to taste). Finally, put some aluminum foil on a roasting pan, apply a little no-stick spray, and roast the sugar-coated shembra in a 375-degree oven, turning them every 15 minutes. After about 45 minutes, they should be ready: crunchy and coated with dark caramelized sugar. Cool them, refrigerate them, and munch them cold. But be careful: They’re addictive!

Ras Dashen, an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, serves an injera bread pudding created by its proprietress/chef, Zenash Beyene. You won’t find it in Ethiopia, but it’s certainly a dessert based on something uniquely Ethiopian. A few blocks up the street, Chicago’s Ethiopian Diamond served a chocolate injera crêpe cake for a special event in 2010. Diamond’s regular dessert menu offers destaya, an Amharic word translated as “my happiness.” It’s a treat made of “thin dough shells stuffed with dried red and white raisins, pistachios, split almonds, shredded coconut and cardamom powder.”



But just because there aren’t Ethiopian desserts doesn’t mean there aren’t Ethiopian pastry chefs. In big cities across the country, you’ll occasionally find a bakery or pastry shop owned by an Ethiopian.

The dean of this rare type of Ethiopian chef is Almaz Dama, who has co-owned Dama in Arlington, Va., with her family for many years. It’s four places in one: a restaurant, banquet hall, catering business and bakery, with Almaz serving as its top chef. Most of the pastries are Western-style, but Almaz does makes a tall, moist, creamy, fruity teff cake that brightens any table lucky enough to host it.

Almaz earned a diploma at the Bethesda, Md., campus of the French L’Academie de Cuisine, where her teacher was Roland Mesnier, who served as a White House pastry chef for 25 years. And while most of her baked goods lean toward the continental, she does offer a few Ethiopian-tinged desserts.

Almaz came to America at age 19, earned a degree in nutrition at Howard University, and opened a restaurant called Dama on North Capital Street in Washington in 1983 with her sister. Business wasn’t so great, and that enterprise closed four years later. She spent the next decade cooking at other places and learning other chefs’ secrets. Then, in 1999, she opened the new Dama with her relatives – two sisters, a brother, and a cousin – and between them they now manage the side-by-side quartet, as well as a Silver Spring, Md., restaurant called Bete that sells Almaz’s baked goods in a café alongside a small restaurant.

Pastry chef Almaz Dama

Pastry chef
Almaz Dama

In her work as a pastry chef, Almaz distinguishes between European-influenced “cake” and Ethiopian “pastry.” Because Ethiopians don’t have a cultural tradition of sweet baked goods, her bakery’s homeland treats are often fried and not always sweet.

For example, there’s sambussa, a triangular fried shell of dough stuffed with spicy lentils or beef, served at many restaurants as an appetizer. One of Almaz’s Italian-influenced treats is a bombolino, which she refers to as an “Ethiopian doughnut.” It’s dark brown and deep-fried, chewy in the middle and peppered with effervescent cumin seeds, denser than an American doughnut, and prepared with much less sugar.

Almaz’s original creation is a tall round cake made of teff and other flours. She uses a blend because teff has no gluten, and the cake “needs something to hold it together.” It’s light brown inside, just like teff, with thin layers of pastry cream throughout, and with chunks of glazed peaches, strawberries and kiwi on top.
It’s delicious, and not too sweet. Almaz has altered her recipes over the years to cut down on the sugar because her Ethiopian customers have suggested it. She also uses less cream in her cakes and cookies than an American baker would use, another concession to her clients.

Pastry chef Kidist Assafa

Pastry chef Kidist Assefa

Not far away, in Falls Church, Va., you’ll find the young Ethiopian pastry chef Kidist Assefa and her Flavor Cake and Pastry, a unique feature at the wonderful Skyline Plaza, a strip mall lined with Ethiopian restaurants and businesses.

Flavor is the only bakery on the strip, and Kidist has a degree from Baltimore’s International Culinary College. She came to America just after high school, about 18 years ago, and her café offers a variety of pastries and coffees.

But Kidist doesn’t make any uniquely Ethiopian pastries – at least, not yet. “The consistency of the pastries are different when you make them with teff,” she says. “But I have a plan to make something yummy.” She would say no more.

And then there’s Giordana, an Ethiopian-American chef who host Giordana’s Kitchen Show on EBS, which broadcasts Amharic-language programs from its office in Silver Spring, Md. She’s produced about half a dozen videos that air on EBS and the internet, and in one of them, she bakes a cake.

In 2011, Mesob Ethiopian Restaurant in Montclair, N.J., introduced a line of non-dairy chocolates in four flavors, two of them Ethiopian-inspired: berbere, guava-ginger, raspberry-rosewater, and t’ej. I can’t say what a berbere-hot piece of chocolate might taste like, but I suspect a piece with a touch of t’ej would be delicious. The restaurant’s other desserts include crème brûlée, almond cake with berry sauce, and “halewa sesame paste with pistachios.”

Abay in Pittsburgh varies its dessert specials, and sometimes it serves a pumpkin-filled sambussa, the doughy fried triangular dish often filled with lentils and served as an appetizer at Ethiopian restaurants. And at Uchenna in Colorado Spring, Colo., there’s baklava, strudel (apple, blueberry or strawberry), French chocolate cake, and two variations of baklava: cataif (“almonds and honey wrapped in shredded wheat”), and saragli (“pistachios, almonds and honey in a filo pastry, drizzled with chocolate”).

Of course, if you’re making an Ethiopian meal, and you want an “Ethiopian” dessert, you can always improvise, just as Zenash does at Ras Dashen with her injera bread pudding. My friend Wilhelmine Stordiau, who makes Begena Tedj in Frankfurt, Germany, and who was born and raised in Ethiopia, makes a sweet treat that uses injera as a sort of crêpe.

"Modern Cake and Bread Recipes"

“Modern Cake and Bread Recipes”

Like all good Ethiopian cooks, Wilma doesn’t have set proportions. She just lets her eye and her instinct tell her how much of everything to use. So here’s how to make it, although you may have to improvise a little:

Take a piece of ginger, about an inch or so long, and peel it, then put it into a food processor with half a cup of water. When it’s processed, strain the water and set it aside. Then, in a pan, cook a little bit of sugar and some fresh orange juice until the sugar melts, then add the ginger water and let it cook until it forms a syrup. Finally, add a little bit of honey – and, if you like, a touch of t’ej. When it’s ready, take an injera and use it like a crêpe, smearing it with the syrup and rolling it up. Cut it in the middle, decorate with orange slices, and (Wilma recommends) “serve with a little bit of crème Chantilly.”

Finally, you can always turn to an Ethiopian cookbook, although the desserts won’t be Ethiopian. Some cookbooks in Amharic have recipes for Western desserts – under sections headings like “Cake,” “Cookies,” “Pudding,” “Tarts” – and I know of at least one cookbook, called Modern Cake and Bread Preparation, that’s filled with dessert recipes. But it’s in Amharic, so your best bet for dessert after an Ethiopian meal might be a nice slice of tiramisu, or a little injera dipped in Ethiopian honey.

Of course, the most authentic Ethiopian dessert is no dessert at all, and Ethiopians will usually tell you that their cuisine is so delectable that you simply don’t need one.

“There’s an old tale about a man who was treated to an excellent meal of doro wot,” Menkir recalls. “After finishing his meal, he politely declined to wash his hands. When asked by his hosts why he would do such a thing, his response was: Why wash away so quickly such intoxicating flavors when I can just take a whiff of my fingers the rest of the day and remember this great meal.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Visit Almaz Dama at her bakery and restaurant.


Ethiopian-American TV host Giordana shows how to bake a cake.


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