Teff is heralded as superfood, as Addis Ababa tries to ensure local population isn’t adversely affected
By James Jeffrey |
Ethiopia — Six days a week, an Ethiopian Airlines flight departs for Washington, D.C., with a fresh batch of 3,000 injera on board. This pancake-shaped pale spongy bread is a centuries-old Ethiopian staple made from teff, an indigenous tiny grain now making a global name for itself as a health food.
Outside Ethiopian diaspora communities — and Ethiopian restaurants — teff remained largely anonymous for decades. But growing appetites for traditional crops and nutritious foods mean customers ranging from families to hipsters in New York and London are now seeking their fix too. The crop is now grown in about 25 U.S. states, but Ethiopians claim you can’t beat teff grown in its homeland for flavor and quality.
Previously heralded so-called superfoods, however, such as Andean quinoa, have illustrated hidden consequences for locals when their indigenous staples find eager customers in more affluent countries. Even before the growth in international demand, poor Ethiopians were struggling to afford increasingly expensive teff.
“A piece of injera used to cost about 50 santeem ($0.02), but now it’s nearly four Ethiopian birr ($0.19),” said Nathaniel, the manager of a hotel in the eastern Ethiopian town of Dire Dawa. It’s estimated that 29 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives on less than $2 a day.
Nathaniel said that the tables on the hotel terrace lacked lunch patrons because people can’t afford to eat out and that many locals, faced with low incomes and high food prices, skip breakfast each day and eat only a midmorning snack followed by an injera-based meal later in the afternoon.
Teff, primarily ground into flour to make injera, is the backbone of Ethiopia’s food. But throughout millennia of farming, most Ethiopians remained unaware of the nutritional gem in their midst.
Though teff is tiny — about 100 grains match a kernel of wheat — it is a nutritional heavyweight. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and it’s high in calcium, iron and protein, with an excellent balance of amino acids. Plus it’s naturally gluten-free. In flour form, it can be used to make foods ranging from bread and pasta to tortillas, piecrusts and cookies, with a far larger potential market than just diaspora Ethiopians needing a taste of home.
“People are dreaming of teff nowadays. After thousands of years, it has become the trendy thing over here,” said Sophie Sirak-Kebede, a British-Ethiopian co-owner of London-based Tobia Teff, which sells teff flour, teff bread, breakfast cereals such as teff flakes and teff porridge and, of course, injera.
Foreign interest in teff even resulted in the Ethiopian government’s trying to establish patent rights over teff’s genetic diversity, although that hasn’t prevented teff production from becoming widely achievable outside Ethiopia and beyond the government’s control. This isn’t the first time Ethiopia has lost global rights to a valuable indigenous crop; having given the world coffee, Ethiopia reaped next to nothing from coffee’s becoming the world’s second-most-valuable legal commodity, after oil.
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