Eragrostis tef or Poa abyssinica – Family Gramineae)
Teff is a little-known cereal grain that is gaining popularity among the health-conscious. A mountain plant of Ethiopia, it was, and is, cultivated at a height of 2,500 to 8,000 feet above sea level. Teff seeds were found in the ruins of the Dassur Pyramid in Egypt, which dated back to about 3,359 BCE. Teff is the most important crop in the Ethiopian highlands (formerly Abyssinia) and has grains so small that seven will fit onto the head of a pin. In the Amharic language, “teff” means ‘lost’ and refers to the fact that many of the tiny seeds disappear when handled and cannot be found. The tiny seeds had another advantage. During times of crisis when the people had to be on the move, Ethiopians were able to pocket the tiny seeds and take them with them to plant in a new area since they grow well in any type of soil. Because it is a major cereal crop of that region, teff is often called “Ethiopian millet”.
The standard use for the grain is in the traditional Ethiopian bread, injera, which is a fermented, very sour bread that measures as much as feet feet in diameter and closely resembles a spongy pancake. It is made on a concave vessel like a Chinese wok. Frequently, such legumes as lentils and garbanzo beans are ground into the batter to make a more complete amino acid balance in the bread, although that is probably not the conscious reason for the practice. It is noted that the Indian chapati and roti, the Mexican tortilla, the Middle Eastern markouk, and the traditional Afghan breads all have a similar ancestry, only using the grains familiar to that region.
The arrival of teff to the US happened in the 1980s, thanks to the efforts of one man. Wayne Carlson spent seven years in Ethiopia in the 1970s, and, while working as a biologist, learned about this versatile and nutritious grain used in the local bread (injera) as well as being combined with legumes and used in many native dishes. After returning to the US, he started experimenting with teff in his own yard. This quickly led to 200 acres and a formation of the name Maskal Forages, Inc., out of Caldwell, Idaho. Reactions to this new grain were typical: “Why would anyone want to grow something out of Africa?” and, from the USDA, “The last thing we need is another cereal grain.” Despite the cynacism, Carlson persevered; and teff is now a popular grain in the health food industry of Canada and the US.
Teff is a millet-like grain, but is in no way related and is very much smaller. Its seeds are so tiny that it takes about 150 of them to weigh as much as one grain of wheat. However, it is a powerhouse as far as nutrients are concerned. It is much higher in iron and calcium than wheat, rice, millet, or oats; and, since there is no way to remove the germ or the husk, all of the nutrients are consumed. Teff comes in three colours: red, brown, and white. The white is the tastiest and mildest of the three and, even though it is white, it is not processed, nor is it deficient in any of the nutrients found in the coloured varieties, although they do have a richer, nuttier flavour.
Forms of teff are as follows:
Whole grain: It makes a hearty cooked cereal. There is no need for soaking as it needs to be cooked only long enough to burst open the grain.
Teff flour: It is the ground grain. It can be ground at home in a mill, but does not work in a spice grinder as the seeds are much too tiny.
Teff pasta: It is not readily available, but there are some pastas available that combine 50% teff with such other grains as whole wheat, semolina, and wild rice.