Injera is the soft, bubbly, pancake-like flatbread that’s the first and last word in Ethiopian cuisine. Made from the country’s indigenous teff flour, injera has a very particular sourdough taste that comes from the fermentation process of the batter used to make the bread.
Perfect for absorbing the rich flavors of the country’s saucy culinary arsenal, injera is a kind of sponge-mop best eaten when thoroughly soaked through with sauce. As such, we’ve decided to pair our injera with misr wat, a lentil stew spiced with Ethiopia’s prime condiment – berbere.
TEFF, ETHIOPIA’S ANCIENT GRAIN
Injera’s main ingredient teff is an ancient grain in an ancient country. It’s possible that it was being farmed as far back as 5,000 years ago, when the earliest agricultural societies were putting spade to soil around the area of the Ethiopian plateau, though there is no real archaeological confirmation of the use of teff for the production of injera until the first few centuries AD.
Excavations in the 1970s unearthed a collection of clay mitads, the large, round skillets used to make injera. Dating back to around the 5th-6th centuries AD, these were over a foot in diameter and shaped like the modern mitads – round and flat with raised edges.
THE LITTLE GRAIN THAT COULD
Teff is tiny. Measuring about 1mm across, it’s the smallest grain in the world, and one of the fastest to cook. It’s also a sturdy little grain, notorious for its ability to grow pretty much anywhere – from wet to dry climates, and in highlands or lowlands. This, in addition to having the immune system of a hardy ox: teff is much less susceptible to disease than other grass plants.
Teff is also packed with enough nutrients to rival quinoa and chia seeds on the shelves of our western health food stores: packing in a lot of manganese as well as well as moderate amounts of thiamin, zinc, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, teff flour supposedly provides two-thirds of Ethiopians with their daily protein needs.
And as if this litany of accolades wasn’t enough, teff is also gluten-free. For our particular recipe, we’ve added wheat flour to the mix to lend more pull, bite and elasticity to the dough, but it’s absolutely not necessary to do so, and it’s worth bearing in mind that the most authentic injera breads in Ethiopia are made from 100% teff flour. Being low on the glycemic index, it’s also a good food for people with type 2 diabetes.
TEFF ON HOLD
What’s curious is that despite teff’s glowing CV, it’s actually grown in very few places in the world – with a few exceptions, pretty much only in Ethiopia. And with Ethiopian cuisine gaining traction as a popular ethnic food in the west, the global demand for teff rose so sharply that in 2006, the Ethiopian government was forced to put a ban on all teff seeds and teff flour leaving the country.
They were trying to avoid the same problem that occurred in Bolivia when quinoa became a fashionable food and demand made local prices of the go up by ten times their original amount. The good news is that as of 2016, after an increase of 50% in teff yields, Ethoipia has restarted controlled exports of the grain again, and to boot, teff can now also be found growing in pockets of the United States.
ABOUT THE RECIPE
As we mentioned before, we decided to go with a 50/50 mixture of teff and wheat flour for our injera, just to add a little more elasticity to the bread. But if you prefer to go all teff, you have our blessing!
Bear in mind you need to prepare your injera mixture ahead of time and allow it to ferment for a day or two, so plan ahead for when you want to make it. How long you leave it to ferment is up to you: once you start to see bubbles rising, you’ll know the process is underway. Then, the longer you leave it, the stronger the sour taste of the dough will be.
The reason this fermentation occurs is that teff flour actually has a symbiotic yeast that grows on it and that is the element that ferments when the grain is soaked in water. Which is why you don’t need to add yeast to this bread! Beware, however, there is such a thing as over-fermentation where the taste will simply become unpalatable, so use your nose to know when the time’s right: a good rule of thumb is not to leave the mixture for more than three days.
There is also an informal rule in Ethiopia at the bowl used for fermenting the injera never be washed properly, but only partially, so that the fermentation will happen more easily the next time around.
In Ethiopia, teff is usually prepared in a very wide mitad and the bread is then folded onto a plate and topped with various curried dishes whose flavors soak into the pores of the injera. For our purposes, we made the injera a little smaller, as Santa has yet to bring us the two-foot non-stick skillet of our dreams. We’ve also decided to keep things simple by just cooking up a misr wat – a traditional red lentil stew. It’s delicious in its own right, and the perfect showcase for berbere, Ethiopia’s catch-all spice that goes perfectly with the flavor of injera.
PREPARE THE INGREDIENTS
A couple of days before you want to eat your injera, you need to prepare the batter for the dough. Weigh out your teff flour and mix with any other flour you might like to add.
Now cover with a dishcloth and leave to ferment at room temperature for at least a night, and a maximum of three days.
MAKING MISR WAT
When you are ready to make your misr wat, add the chopped onions to the pan with some olive oil on a medium heat and allow them to soften.
Once the lentils are creamy, give them another stir, add a knob of butter and/or some coconut cream for ramped up creaminess.
Once your injera batter has fermented sufficiently, you can uncover it and give it a very thorough stir. Some people like to skim the bubbles off the top of the liquid, but we mixed ours in.
Prepare a non-stick pan with a little oil. Allow the pan to heat up on a medium heat, and then pour in about a quarter-cup of the mixture. Watch for the thickness of your injera – you want to aim for the territory in between a French crêpe and an American pancake.
Bubbles will start to form as the injera heats up. Monitor it closely, and when the edges of the injera can be lifted from the pan, your injera is ready to go. Take it out immediately with a spatula, as it could overcook or burn very quickly.
Keep frying injera until you finished the batter, and you can pile them up on a plate like pancakes. Make sure your misr wat is nice and hot and good to go, then serve the two together. Knives and forks are optional, but discouraged. A true injera meal involves using the bread as your eating utensil: rip pieces off it and scoop up the misr wat for optimum injera satisfaction.
OUR TAKE ON THE RECIPE
This injera gets a very definite nod of approval from our test kitchen. The slightly sour note from the fermentation of the dough gave the bread a cheese-like flavor. This may not be pleasing to everyone, but we personally love it. The texture of the injera turned out quite bouncy and airy, which we think is a good thing with most breads.
If we were to make our injera again, we might try experimenting with 100% teff flour, or with adding something else rather than wheat flour like all-purpose gluten-free flour to keep the bread without gluten. We also thought of adding some cumin to the mix, as we have a hunch it’d go really well with the sourdough flavor.
A little more or a little less water in the batter mixture could go a long way to making a big difference to the feel and texture of the bread, so it’s important to be precise. A non-stick pan is also essential for frying the injera as it would be impossible to keep in one piece otherwise. And the bigger the pan, the better!