“You might have eaten teff and not known it.”
When people find out I cannot eat gluten, they often say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
And the next utterance? “Um, does that mean you are on the Atkins diet?”
Nope. Not even close. Can I eat rice? Yes. Corn? Oh yeah to tortillas. Potatoes? I don’t know what I would do without potatoes.
I am not on a low-carb diet. In fact, now that I live gluten-free, I eat more whole grains than ever before. Did you know that many Americans do not eat a single whole grain in a year? Not one. Think about it. How many people grab a toaster waffle for breakfast, a sandwich on white bread for lunch, take-out tacos for dinner? There’s a lot of processed wheat in those on-the-run days but not many whole grains.
If I had not been forced to go gluten-free because of my celiac diagnosis, I don’t know that I would have ever eaten teff.
Teff is the staple grain of Ethiopia where it has been growing for thousands of years. Because it’s labor-intensive to grow and harvest, the grain stayed in the hands of men and women who grew it, rather than being traded to other countries. It took a civil war for the rest of us to find it.
The military junta in charge of Ethiopia after the death of Haile Selassie demanded that farmers stop growing teff and start growing wheat, in order to make money in exports for the economy depleted by war. An American aid worker from Idaho named Wayne Carlson fell in love with the grain and the food made from it after working in Ethiopia in the 1970s. He asked the farmers to share their growing secrets with him. When he left the country, he came home with teff seeds in his suitcase. (Surely the TSA wasn’t searching for those.) Carlson began growing teff in Caldwell, Idaho, which has similar growing conditions to the high hills in Ethiopia.
Today, every ounce of teff eaten in the U.S. comes from the seeds Wayne Carlson smuggled back from Ethiopia, and most of it sold through his Teff Company. (I love a food story with rebellion and smuggling involved.)
You might have eaten teff and not known it. Have you ever been to an Ethiopian restaurant with friends? That dark brown, spongy-as-a-yoga-mat flatbread in the middle of the platter surrounded by yellow lentils, sautéed greens, and a big pile of meat? That’s injera, a slightly sour flatbread typically made with teff flour. Most U.S. restaurants mix teff flour with wheat flour because the water is different enough (compared to water in Ethiopia) that the injera never comes out quite right. [Gluten-free eaters, be aware of this before you order that veggie combo.] Injera–kind of like a giant crepe, kind of like a dosa–is the center of that table. Everything combines in flavor with the teff bread.
But for most of us, our brief connection with teff ends there. An alluring and exotic meal, a sourdough taste at the back of the mouth, a good memory. Me?
I use teff in nearly everything I bake.
The teff grain is so tiny, it takes three thousand grains to weigh one gram. Can you imagine how fine a flour that makes? If you’ve ever tried a packaged gluten-free cookie, you know that most of them have the heft of the brick you keep behind the door in case an intruder breaks in. Not much lightness there. However, in combination with other flours, teff can make a lovely bread, a tender pie crust, and crisp little banana pancakes. I throw teff flour into muffins and quick breads. Because the flour is so fine, it almost turns gelatinous when heated, binding the other ingredients together. It’s a sort of substitute for gluten that way. I’m convinced that banana bread is actually better gluten-free (with teff) than with wheat flour.
But you don’t have to combine gluten-free flours to get some whole grains. Why not try some teff porridge? Each tiny grain of teff contains both the bran and germ, where all the nutrients live. Teff is full of protein and calcium, as well as iron. (One cup of cooked teff contains all the daily iron recommended by the USDA.) Think of the prowess of Ethiopian long-distance runners in world running events–they all grew up eating teff.
And the taste of that porridge? Satisfying and unexpected, something like dark chocolate, a hint of maple syrup. Now, I can’t imagine living without it. Once, I did not know it existed.