Teff [Eragrostis tef] is the only fully-domesticated member of the genus Eragrostis (lovegrass). Its name is often assumed to be related to the word “lost” in Amharic – because of the tiny size (less than 1mm diameter – similar to a poppy seed) of its seeds.
This tiny size, in fact, makes teff ideally suited to semi-nomadic life in areas of Ethiopia and Eritrea where it has long thrived. A handful of teff is enough to sow a typical field, and it cooks quickly, using less fuel than other foods. Teff also thrives in both waterlogged soils and during droughts, making it a dependable staple wherever it’s grown. No matter what the weather, teff crops will likely survive, as they are also relatively free of plant diseases compared to other cereal crops.
Teff can grow where many other crops won’t thrive, and in fact can be produced from sea level to as high as 3000 meters of altitude, with maximum yield at about 1800-2100m high. This versatility could explain why teff is now being cultivated in areas as diverse as dry and mountainous Idaho and the low and wet Netherlands. Teff is also being grown in India and Australia. In Kansas, the Kansas Black Farmers Association is experimenting with teff – intrigued by both its connection to Africa and its market potential.
Growing in the fields, teff appears purple, gray, red, or yellowish brown. Seeds range from dark reddish brown to yellowish brown to ivory.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF TEFF
Teff leads all the grains – by a wide margin – in its calcium content, with a cup of cooked teff offering 123 mg, about the same amount of calcium as in a half-cup of cooked spinach.
Teff was long believed to be high in iron, but more recent tests have shown that its iron content comes from soil mixed with the grain after it’s been threshed on the ground – the grain itself is not unusually high in iron.
Teff is, however, high in resistant starch, a newly-discovered type of dietary fiber that can benefit blood-sugar management, weight control, and colon health. It’s estimated that 20-40% of the carbohydrates in teff are resistant starches. A gluten-free grain with a mild flavor, teff is a healthy and versatile ingredient for many gluten-free products.
Since teff’s bran and germ make up a large percentage of the tiny grain, and it’s too small to process, teff is always eaten in its whole form. It’s been estimated that Ethiopians get about two-thirds of their dietary protein from teff. Many of Ethiopia’s famed long-distance runners attribute their energy and health to teff.
In Ethiopia, teff is usually ground into flour and fermented to make the spongy, sourdough bread known as injera. As anyone knows who has eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant anywhere in the world, injera is used as an edible serving plate. Food is piled on a large round of injera on a tray in the middle of the table and different foods are served directly onto the injera. The diners eat by tearing off bits of injera, and rolling the food inside. Ethiopians also use teff to make porridge and for alcoholic beverages, including tella and katikala.
Today, teff is moving way beyond its traditional uses. It’s an ingredient in pancakes, snacks, breads, cereals and many other products, especially those created for the gluten-free market. You can also buy teff wraps.
White or ivory teff has the mildest flavor, with darker varities having an earthier taste. Those who have only tasted teff in injera assume it has a sour taste, but when it is not fermented (made into a sourdough), teff has a sweet and light flavor.