Ever since the pandemic hit there’s been a social media outbreak of sourdough bread pictures. During spells of home confinement, an inner baker seems to have afflicted many Americans, causing a shortage in wheat flour, as well as non-wheat options for those who avoid gluten. So people began to explore alternatives. One of those — teff, a grain central to Ethiopian cuisine — has for years been poised to be the “the new quinoa,” a foreign whole grain with high nutritional value but little exposure to international markets.
Teff are tiny seeds that originated in the Horn of Africa and are the foundational ingredient for injera, the tangy, spongy bread that many Ethiopian dishes are served on and eaten with. Teff is naturally gluten-free, high in protein and calcium, and used as a whole grain in most everything.
After U.S. mayors and governors issued stay-at-home guidance in the spring, TJ Anderson and Royd Carlson, who manage the Teff Company in Boise, Idaho, one of the few domestic wholesalers of the grain, were surprised when they started to get more calls from regular consumers instead of retailers. “What’s happened is a lot of the individuals that usually go to those stores can’t find it and so are coming to us directly. So the result is quite a large increase in phone call volume and email volume,” Carlson told me. “We’re doing our best.” The company, Anderson told me in late June, depleted inventory of some varieties after demand spiked in March and remained higher than normal.
Carlson’s father, Wayne Carlson, founded the company in the early ’80s after a stint as a public health worker in Ethiopia. He persuaded farmers across the West to plant the crop using seeds provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from a vault maintained at Washington State University, and the company milled the grain. Because Idaho wasn’t a hotbed of Ethiopian cuisine, Wayne went through a D.C. phone book to find customers. (The D.C. region has long been home to one of the largest Ethiopian communities in the country.) Today, the company has grown along with demand: It has 17 employees including the owners and works with 50 to 60 farms across the country that supply teff. (Horses apparently like teff grass hay.)
Meanwhile, as the Teff Company saw demand increase, Yared Mamo, owner of Habesha Market and Carry-out in Northwest Washington, told me in April that disruption to international air travel was making it tougher to get imported injera and teff flour. Habesha goes through about 20 bags of the grain — 25 pounds each — per week to make its injera.
Even before a recent spate of civil violence, Ethiopia tightly controlled the amount of teff grain that can leave the country each year. Officials there fear that demand for teff on the global market could cause domestic prices to explode, pricing everyday Ethiopians out of one of their nutritional staples (as has happened in Bolivia and Peru after the explosion in popularity of quinoa in the past few decades). Caroline Sluyter, a program director for the Oldways Whole Grains Council, which researches grains and certifies products as “whole grain,” estimates that teff accounts for 70 percent of the average Ethiopian’s daily caloric intake, making it a vital crop to the country.
Though teff is closely associated with injera (as well as other mainstays of Ethiopian cuisine), teff flour can be used to bake a lot of items more familiar to Westerners. Sluyter estimated that the number of products using teff reviewed by the Whole Grains Council since 2010 has doubled.
“Teff, you can use it for bread, you can use it for the cookie ... you can use it for many different things, and it is the best thing for health,” says Zenebech Dessu, the James Beard Award semifinalist who co-owns the Zenebech Restaurant in Adams Morgan. An injera baker of semi-legendary status in Washington’s Ethiopian restaurant community, Dessu says she hasn’t tried to bake much else other than injera with teff flour but sees the appeal.
A combination of heritage and necessity drove Bethel Tsegaye toward using teff for non-injera goods like shortbreads and cookies. Tsegaye, a native Washingtonian and Ethiopian American, developed a gluten intolerance while working for a nongovernmental organization in the Netherlands in 2013.
“The one thing I was worried about was: Will I be able to eat injera, which is native to my culture,” Tsegaye says. After realizing she could still eat the flatbread because teff doesn’t contain gluten, she started to bake the other items she missed using teff flour. When she moved back to Washington in 2019, she found herself disappointed with a lot of the area’s bakeries, in part because she’s also vegan. So she started her own: Teff & Co., which sells online and to a cafe. “That’s really what compelled me to start this business,” she explains, “because I was like, This is unacceptable.”
Tsegaye leaned on her experience with trial and error from leisure baking to start offering vegan teff cookies and shortbreads, but acknowledged that when she began baking with teff, “everything was always breaking and very crumbly.” “Then I finally figured out how to use it, and I sort of perfected my recipes to get to where I am today,” says Tsegaye. “I use white teff a lot because it does well with baking, it holds well,” she notes. “The darker teff,” used for injera, “is a little more dense, and it can be a little bit sticky.”
She tried to source her teff from Ethiopia but found the supply chain unreliable, so she now buys from the Teff Company, as well as a Canadian supplier. The demand for comfort food and the disruption caused by covid-19 has driven business higher than it was before the pandemic, she says. “People still want to eat, perhaps even more during this time, and we’re very lucky for that.”
Colin Wilhelm is a senior congressional reporter for Bloomberg Industry Group.