Teff - the gluten-free Ethiopian grain

Michelle Berriedale-Johnson reports on the Ethiopian grain loved by athletes, diabetics - and coeliacs!

Teff is the smallest grain in the world, grown primarily in the central highlands of Ethiopia and used to make the flat bread, injera, that accompanies every Ethiopian meal. Teff is also widely used as animal fodder while its straw is used to re-enforce thatched roofs and mud bricks.

Although, as Ethiopian communities grow around the world, the requirement for teff is also growing, its preference for equatorial light conditions (a maximum of 12 hours daylight) causes problems in the northern hemisphere with our long summer hours of daylight. However, teff’s nutritional profile and the fact that it is naturally gluten free make it a very appealing grain. A good deal of work is being done both in the American midwest and in Holland to adapt it to the longer daylight hours.

Nutritional virtues

Teff grains are tiny - you can hold enough seeds in one hand to sow an entire field - which made it ideal for the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the early Ethiopians. Because it is so small the grain cannot be separated, as wheat can, into germ, bran and endosperm so teff retains a very high fibre content - great for high-fibre diets and for blood sugar control. Hence its appeal for diabetics.

Teff has very much higher levels of calcium (167g/100g) than wheat (34g/100g) so will appeal to those on dairy-free diets. It also has significantly higher levels of a range of other nutrients - iron (5.7mg/100g versus 3.9), magnesium (194mg versus 138), zinc (4.6mg versus 2.9), Vitamin B3/niacin (16mg versus 0.8), Vitamin C (70mg versus 0.25) - and low levels of phytic acid making the minerals more bio-available than in any other grains.

Moreover, teff contains the full range of eight amino acids essential for humans, so is excellent for vegetarians. When teff is used to make Ethiopian flat bread, a short fermentation process allows the yeast to generate yet more vitamins.
Teff is naturally gluten free so is the ideal grain for anyone on a wheat or gluten-free diet.

Cookability

Because you are using the whole grain, teff flour (which comes as white, brown and red) is slightly coarse and grainy. Lucy Seffen of Roley’s, the first company to market baked products made with teff flour reckons that it works better if combined with another gluten-free flour. We combined it with potato flour in this cake recipe, which worked very well. These biscuits, which we made with pure brown teff, were fine but definitely grainier and more ‘unusual’.

Bread made with the white teff was in fact dark brown, quite solid and very nutty but not at all unpleasant. Roley’s are working on a teff-based bread-mix which will probably produce a lighter, more conventional bread.

Availability

Teff is grown both in Australia and in the mid-west of the USA but until recently has not been cultivated in Europe. However, a Dutch firm are now growing it organically as ‘eragrain’. The resulting teff is available at Innovative Solutions.

The Roley's teff products are also available from distributors Zenith Gluten Free.

Injera

The national bread of Ethiopia is called injera and is actually a huge fermented pancake which is spread out on the table and onto which other foods are placed. The diners pull off pieces of the injera and use it to ‘roll’ up the other foods - like a massive cigarette - which they then eat with their fingers.

The proportions for injera are roughly 2.5 times the amount of water to flour. Mix them together in a bowl, cover with a towel and leave at room temperature for up to three days - or until the mixture bubbles and turns sour. This can happen overnight.

Season with salt then heat a little oil in a large pan and pour in enough mixture to make a medium thick pancake. Cook briefly, until holes form in the injera and the edges lift from the pan. Do not let it brown, and do not flip it over as it is only supposed to be cooked on one side.

Remove the pancake and let cool. Layer the pancakes with greaseproof paper to prevent them sticking.

To browse for teff flour on Amazon, click here - but check for 'may contain' warnings before purchasing.

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