A FEW YEARS AGO, I had a student who was raised in Washington, D.C., a city rich with Ethiopian culture. She grew up eating Ethiopian food at the home of a close family friend. One day, she asked her Ethiopian “godmother” if injera was difficult to make.
“Not at all,” said the older woman. “I get in my car, go to the grocery store, and buy it.”
“What?!” said the girl, shocked at her godmother’s indolence. “You don’t make it yourself?
“Does your mother bake her own bread?” her mentor replied.
Times have certainly changed for Ethiopian women who make the daily meal. In Ethiopia today, most families still make their injera at home. But the government has begun to encourage the construction of condominiums, which means that some usban families now have smaller homes with smaller cooking spaces in which to use and store a mitad, the large round hotplate, some 15 to 20 inches in diameter, on which the injera is made. This has driven more Ethiopians to buy their injera at market.
Not being in Ethiopia – and, incidentally, not even being Ethiopian – I have always bought my injera at market as well: When I visit D.C. each summer, I bring some home with me, and when that runs out, I buy it online from Zelalem Injera in D.C. and have it shipped to me.
But now, thanks to a wonderful little book called You Can Make Injera – with its simple, step-by-step preparation that actually works – I’ve begun to make this temperamental bread at home, albeit with sporadic success that I attribute solely to my own injera-making skills, and not to any deficiency in the book.
The traditional way of making injera in Ethiopia comes with certain requirements. You should never wash the container, called a bohaka, in which you mix the batter, for doing so washes away the irsho – that is, the remnants of fermentation from the previous batch. This thin yellow liquid is the Ethiopian version of sourdough starter – irsho is actually the Amharic word for yeast – and the most serious bakers will collect it to begin new batches and to stoke the ones that come from a well-used bohaka. The batter must sit for anywhere from one to three days, depending on the temperature, the altitude, the strength of the irsho and the age of the bohaka.
If the cook hastens the process and the batter doesn’t ferment enough, the injera is called aflegna, which means unleavened. This kind of injera is popular in rural areas. If it’s made from highly fermented irsho and has a very sour flavor, it’s called komtata, a term derived from the Amharic word for vinegar. Some people prefer their injera this way, but just as often it’s a mistake, the work of a novice cook, like a newlywed, or just not a very good one. Personally, though, I prefer my injera to be betam komtata.
You Can Make Injera doesn’t quite go so far as telling you never to wash your bohaka. But it does teach you how to save some prepared batter to use as a starter, and it recommends that you never wash your mitad, even if it’s just a 12-inch skillet or frying pan. You do need to dedicate something to making your injera, and when you buy it, you cure it by heating some salt on the surface and “cleaning” the surface with the salt and a cloth. Then, after each use, you rub the surface again with salt – but you never clean it with water.
I could give you all of the steps and proportions from the book right here. But I won’t do that: Mulusew Yayehyirad, and Ethiopian woman who wrote the book with Teresa Paprock, donates all profits from its sale to Clinic at a Time Inc., a charity that raises funds to provide medical supplies and services to people in Ethiopia’s Gojjam province. So if you’re serious about making injera, then you’ll have no qualms about buying the book, helping the charity, and treating yourself to a lifetime of delicious, homemade injera.
You can visit Amazon.com to buy the book – which includes numerous recipes for Ethiopian dishes, plus information about the history and culture of Ethiopia – and you can read about Clinic at a Time at the charity’s website.
You Can Make Injera is filled with color photographs that illustrate every step of the process, and I can tell you from experience that it works. But injera is still a difficult bread, and until you’re a pro – or an Ethiopian – it might not always work. Trust me on that.
On my first attempt at making injera using the book, my pieces came out too thick, or “fat.” But they were nicely sour with fermentation, they had the right texture, and they looked like injera: smooth on the bottom, bubbly on top. I made another batch a few weeks later – and it was a disaster! Not one piece turned out right. A few weeks after that, I tried again, with better (but still not perfect) results. The first piece of this third batch was a mess, the ones after that better. It’s all in balancing the elements: the right batter, the right pan, high-enough heat, and a little bit of luck (until you perfect your technique).
Then came my fourth attempt, and I was back to square two: I didn’t get one good piece out of it. I haven’t yet made a fifth attempt, but my successful first and third attempts tell me that I did something right.
I bought a new 12-inch frying pan to make my injera and cured it the way Mulu instructs in the book. It works well, although my pieces are smaller than what you get in American restaurants (where the injera is smaller than what you get in Ethiopia). It’s hard to heat a larger surface evenly on a stovetop, so if you want to make larger pieces, you’ll need to buy a proper mitad. Your most authentic option is the device made by Niat Products of Seattle, Wash. The company’s owner and inventor, Zekarias Tesfagabar, is an Eritrean-American, and he calls his product a mogogo, the Tigrinya word for mitad. Or you can buy a Heritage Grill online at Target. Many Ethiopians in America use this, and it’s sold in Ethiopian markets around the country as well.
The fact that many Ethiopian women in America have sworn off making their own injera has convinced me that I’m in excellent company.
Leah Tedla is a good example. She was raised in Ethiopia and has lived in America for decades – but she still can’t make injera. And there’s some irony in her shortcoming: Leah’s father, Tedla Desta, was the first person to make injera for sale in D.C. markets in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
When Leah was a young woman, she got some advice from Ethiopian friends living on the West Coast who had made injera successfully. But their technique didn’t work for her, so she thought, “it must be the water.” Not likely: Her friends in D.C., where she lived, made injera at home just fine.
There was no teff back then, Leah recalls, so “we made it from flour, and someone also suggested mixing flour with Aunt Jemima pancake mix to bring out its eyes,” she recalls. “We knew we couldn’t get the real injera taste, but we could wrap the sauces with a pliable flat bread that had eyes. That was good enough in the early years.”
Leah also tried using seltzer water to create injera with eyes – that is, the bubbles on the top. Still no luck. And sometimes, her injera would stick to the pan, creating nothing but a mess.
Around this time, Leah’s father proposed making injera for sale in the D.C. area, and Leah says she “totally got it” because of her own failed efforts: Surely other Ethiopians craved injera and had failed to make their own. So she helped her father create a business plan to get funding from the Small Business Administration – which didn’t get it.
“Some of the individuals started laughing out loud and said the idea was crazy,” Leah recalls of one meeting. “When I began to explain why the idea was a great one, Tedla turned to me and said in Amharic, ‘Don’t you see you are speaking to a simpleton. He is feso.’ He used to say someone was feso if they showed no attempt to learn or had no curiosity. Tedla asked if they would accept cash, real estate, securities, or other collateral for their guarantee because he was willing to give them 50 percent cash collateral. No, said the SBA, with regrets.”
So Tedla financed his project with his own money, and today, Leah notes, “injera is a multi-million-dollar industry spanning the entire U.S. and trapping people into its delicious mystery.”
Fortunately for the nation’s expanding Ethiopian population, and for all of the non-Ethiopians who love the cuisine, you can now buy injera online. Big cities with an Ethiopian population almost always have at least one market that sells injera, and some have many markets. These same cities – and dozens of smaller ones – have Ethiopian restaurants, all of which make there own injera. If you have a restaurant in your town but no market, you can probably buy a few pieces of injera at the restaurant for takeout if you want to cook Ethiopian food at home.
So why do some Ethiopians claim that injera is difficult to make in America? They’ll say it’s the water, or the atmosphere or elevation. (Ethiopia’s fertile highlands are the center of the country’s agricultural life.)
But I think it’s simpler than all that. The fact that so many people can and do make perfectly good injera in America means that certain other people just need more practice to get it right, a proper cooking surface, and a reliable recipe like the one in You Can Make Injera.
And by the way, if you don’t want to buy the book – although I highly recommend it – you might be able to learn how to make injera at the website of Heather Moore, a North Carolina woman whose Ethiopian friends have taught her how to do it. Her very thorough site includes videos showing each step of the process, which is more elaborate than the one in Mulu’s book.
Because injera freezes well, you can order 20 pieces online or make a batch yourself and not have to eat it all at once. Just fold the injera into tight triangles, wrap each piece separately in aluminum foil, and freeze them for future use. Of course, this means you’ll need to learn to cook Ethiopian food. A good place to start is with my “Recipes” page, or you can buy an Ethiopian cookbook. I have links above that direct you to both options.
And you don’t always have to cook a full-course Ethiopian meal to enjoy your homemade injera. Why not make a snack of kategna: pan-grilled pieces of injera, smeared with berbere-spiced kibe. My “Recipes” page teaches you how to do it.
At almost every Ethiopian megeb bet – that is, restaurant, or literally, “food house” – in America, the injera flows like water: If you run out during a meal, someone will bring more if you ask for it (or sometimes even without having to ask). This is certainly true of restaurants in the biggest cities – D.C., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto – where there’s lots of competition. It’s also true of most restaurants I’ve visited in smaller cities that may only have one or two restaurants, although sometimes you’ll find a place that gives you injera under your meal and only one side piece of injera for grabbing your food. Then, if you want more, you pay extra for it.
Finally, though, if you can’t master injera or can’t get your hands on any locally, you can always scoop up your homemade Ethiopian food with some Indian nan or a moist pita bread. But if you’re already making the effort to cook Ethiopian cuisine, then admit it: You’re hooked. And that means that you, too, can (probably) make injera.
University of Pittsburgh