Ethiopia is a land of lush countryside, ancient history and strong tradition. It is believed to be one of the oldest Christian civilisations in the world. Sadly, it is still synonymous with the famine of the 1980s and is remembered in Sir Bob Geldolf’s Live Aid project, which raised awareness and funding for the people suffering the most.
The country also has a rich food heritage, even though in many part of the country there is still widespread malnutrition. Overall the situation has improved in the last thirty years and today, for those who have access to markets, Ethiopia boasts one of the healthiest diets in the world.
Traditional food consists of a wide variety of grains, mixed spices, chillies and chilli powder, pulses and dried beans. The staple in most meals is the cereal crop tef. The word comes from the Amharic language (the official language of Ethiopia), which means ‘lost’. The grain is very fine and looks like sand, so the name is in reference to the fact that if you dropped it, it would be lost. Scientists believe the grain was first grown in Northeast Africa about 5,000 years BCE (Before the Common Era) and is the smallest grain in agriculture. The whole grain is used, unprocessed, to keep in all the goodness. It is high in soluble fibre, iron, calcium, protein (it provides for two thirds of the Ethiopian people’s protein intake), and is very low in gluten.
The tef grain is ground into a flour, mixed with water, some salt and left to ferment for a couple of days to give it the distinct flavour. The batter is then poured into a hot pan. Cooked, the result has the texture of, and looks like, a big ‘bouncy’ pancake – a spicy, yet slightly sour pancake.
As a base for all sorts of toppings, mostly vegetable stews and pulses, especially lentils, it also plays the role of an eating utensil, and is used to soak up sauces. Most families can’t afford meat, so when enough money has been saved, a visit to the butcher provides for a family treat. The traditional Ethiopian diet is thus high in fibre and low in red meat, which is known to reduce the risk of colon cancer.
There are many traditional variations and for those without access to tef (outside of Ethiopia, although it is now grown in the United States and Australia), there are many substitutes. But the most important feature of injera is that the whole family sits around the pancake and eats off the same plate enjoying friendship and laughter as valuable accompaniments to every meal.