As Americans embrace Ethiopian cuisine, its farmers grow more teff

July 29, 2012

It’s almost midnight, but Zelalem Injera, an Ethio­pian bread factory housed in a cavelike Northeast Washington warehouse, is wide awake. As its 30-foot-long injera machine hums, Ethio­pian American businessman Kassahun Maru, 61, proudly explains that it cranks out 1,000 of the fermented Frisbee-shaped discs every hour for the region’s growing number of ­ethnic grocery stores, health food boutiques and Ethio­pian restaurants.

Injera — the Ethio­pian staple food that doubles as cutlery — is made from teff, a tiny grain ubiquitous in the Horn of Africa and until recently almost unknown elsewhere. But the teff that Zelalem Injera uses is grown in America. The 25-pound sacks stacked along the wall read “Maskal Teff: An Ancient African Grain. Made in Idaho.” Once solely grown in the rugged Ethiopian highlands, teff is popping up in the windswept fields of the American heartland.

Waves of immigrants come to this country seeking a taste of home, but in doing so they change our tastes, too. Increasingly, cuisine can be a sort of international connective tissue, with people who may never travel to, say, India, now able to choose from five brands of naan in the ethnic foods aisle at Wegmans. The demand for teff has created a ripple effect that reaches from Addis Ababa to Boise to D.C.

When the first waves of Ethiopians began arriving in Washington after the 1974 Marxist coup, they had so few of the necessary supplies at hand that they made injera with Aunt Jemima pancake batter. “It tasted funny,” recalls Getachew Zewdie, 47, the owner of Dukem, one of U Street’s first Ethio­pian restaurants.

“There was just so much demand for real injera,” Zewdie says, standing amid sizzling skillets and bubbling vats of pungent yellow lentils and strips of meat tibs drizzled in rosemary sprigs and garlic. While injera is imported every day on Ethio­pian Airlines, it’s not as popular as the freshly made kind. The region’s injera industry — it’s baked at more than 50 locations in and around Washington — earns about $12 million a year with an estimated 4,000 packs sold per day, Maru estimates. Today, Zewdie buys his injera from Maru, and Maru buys his teff from the Teff Company in Caldwell, Idaho.

A growing market

A combination of factors has spurred the growth of the U.S. teff market. One is scarcity: The Ethiopian government routinely bans its export to protect prices from rising inside the country during lean seasons. Another is a shift in American dietary habits. The rise in Ethio­pian immigrants and the concomitant rise in the popularity of Ethio­pian food have increased demand, as has the surge in vegetarianism (a two-ounce serving of teff has as much protein as an extra-large egg). Yet another is the increased awareness of gluten allergies; gluten-free teff is a welcome alternative to wheat.

“It is a great crop,” says Don Miller, a plant breeder who works with teff at a seed research facility in West Salem, Wis. “And its uses are expanding all the time.”

A native of Texas, Miller, 60, sports a mustache and wears an array of turquoise rings. He has a PhD in agronomy and studies the use of teff as forage for horses and other animals. He received USDA grants in 2009 to 2010 to promote the Afric­an grain. “Maybe the Ethiopians like the taste a little more than I do,” he concedes, “but, you know, I really like it as a gluten-free chocolate cake.”

Teff — which looks like wispy green wheat — is also being grown in Nevada, California and Texas, Miller says ­. “It’s just a really exciting time for teff.”

Homesick Ethiopians aren’t the only ones spurring the demand for teff. Ethio­pian food is becoming more mainstream despite its unfamiliar texture — a bit like baby food — and the injera itself, which is used to scoop it by hand. These days Ethio­pian cuisine can be found everywhere from U Street to Silver Spring to Alexandria­.­ “This was an inevitable consequence to more people catching on to the fact that Ethio­pian food is becoming the new Indian,” says Harry Kloman, author of “Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.

Kloman, a lanky University of Pittsburgh journalism professor, reflects on the cuisine’s newfound popularity over an alfresco dinner at the Lalibela Ethio­pian restaurant in Logan Circle. “Now the world has discovered teff and injera — and it’s only a growing market.”

Teff gets competitive

Wayne Carlson, who operates the Teff Company in Idaho’s Snake River Valley, is considered the father of American teff. In the 1980s, he was living in Ethiopia working in a public health project on waterborne diseases.

“When I left I realized that I really missed the food,” says Carlson, who runs the company with his wife Elisabeth. “And I sort of thought, the West always goes to Africa and tells them things they ought to do. Well, Ethiopians also know what they’re doing, and maybe one of their cultural treasures can be transferred to us.”

He noticed that the geology and climate of Idaho were similar to those of Ethi­o­pia and, in 1984, he began importing and cultivating the seeds. He was alone for a while, but over the years he’s trained at least 50 other American farmers to grow teff, he says. “I thought it would be a natural fit, especially as the Ethio­pian community grew.”

Demonstrating just how competitive the industry is, Carlson pleaded guilty last spring of harassing a rival teff grower, Tesfa Drar, an Ethio­pian American and general manager of Teff Farms in Minnesota. Carlson was sentenced to a year’s probation in what the local media termed the “teff tiff.” The Carlsons say the charges were false and intended to destroy their business. Ethiopian American business leaders such as Maru hold Carlson in high regard, and view the incident as proof that everyone wants in on teff.

The science of injera

The massive machine at Zelalem Injera in Washington was invented by Kassahun Maru’s cousin, Wudneh Admassu, chairman of the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Idaho.

In Ethi­o­pia, women make injera over a wood fire by pouring the batter in a circular motion on a concave clay griddle. Concerned about the depletion of natural resources and the health of women who inhale the smoke, Admassu began planning a machine that could make injera in a different way. (One day, he hopes, they will be used in his native country.)

“I dabbled in a lab,” Admassu says. “My wife helped me since she knows many things that are not written. And after about three or four years I came up with this machine.”

I t’s anything but simple: Making injera is a delicate undertaking that includes a week-long, temperature-controlled fermentation process followed by careful measuring of the mixture’s viscosity “to monitor the consistency of the batter,” he says. The machine then drops, spreads and bakes the mixture, creating the flat 15-inch discs.

In August, Admassu will visit the Ethio­pian Heritage and Culture Camp in Harrisonburg, Va., to speak to adopted Ethiopian American children about his Willy Wonka-esque contraption. But they shouldn’t expect too much specificity, he says with a chuckle.

“It’s a secret recipe for a growing business,” Admassu says.

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