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More About Ethiopian Food: Teff

Author(s): Doris Piccinin, M.S. R.D., Department of Nutrition and Food Service
Contributor(s): Tsegazeab Woldetatios, PhD, Agronomy, Medical Interpreter at Harborview Medical Center
Date Last Reviewed: December 14, 2010

The preferred staple in the Ethiopian and Eritrean diet is engera/injera (pronounced en-jer-a, and sometimes spelled injera), a flat sour-like fermented pancake that is used with "wot", a stew made with spices, meats and pulses, such as lentils, beans and split peas. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, teff is the most common cereal crop used to make engera. Teff is a tiny, round, khaki-colored grain closely resembling millet. Its scientific name is Eragrostis teff. "Teffa", the Amharic word for "lost", is so named because of teff's small size. It is the smallest grain in the world and often is lost in the harvesting and threshing process because of its size.

Nutritional Information

Teff is well known by Ethiopians and Eritreans for its superior nutritional quality. It contains 11% protein, 80% complex carbohydrate and 3% fat. It is an excellent source of essential amino acids, especially lysine, the amino acid that is most often deficient in grain foods. Teff contains more lysine than barley, millet, and wheat and slightly less than rice or oats. Teff is also an excellent source of fiber and iron, and has many times the amount of calcium, potassium and other essential minerals found in an equal amount of other grains. When teff is used to make engera, a short fermentation process allows the yeast to generate more vitamins. (*note that the online reference used as source for the information in this preceding paragraph is no longer found).

teff_label
Label for 1-pound bag of brown teff from Idaho. Photo by: Wayne Carlson

Teff is nearly gluten-free, and is gaining popularity in the whole food and Health food industry in the U.S. as an alternative grain for persons with gluten sensitivity. Teff may also have applications for persons with Celiac Disease.

Demand for Teff

It would seem that because of its superior nutritional qualities, teff would be available to all persons in Ethiopia to make engera. However, while it is the preferred grain in making engera, its availability is limited by its high cost. Teff is currently the most expensive grain to purchase in Ethiopia as it requires labor-intensive harvesting and processing techniques, and produces especially low yields. Although teff covers the greatest land space in Ethiopia, it has the lowest yield per hectare, an average of 910kg/ha. In 1996-1997, teff covered 31% of the total landmass, as compared to 17% and 13% for corn and wheat respectively. The total yield for the teff grown in that year was only 26-28%. Research is currently under way to improve the yield of this cereal crop both in Ethiopia and in the U.S. (Ketema, Seyfu, Addis, Ethiopia, 1996; Chekol, Tesema, University of Maryland, 1997).

Teff is grown in Ethiopia and Eritrea predominately for human consumption. Other grains grown in Ethiopia and Eritrea include barley, sorghum, wheat, and maize/corn.

In Ethiopia, teff has multiple other uses including acting as reinforcement for thatched roofs and mud bricks. It may sometimes be used as an alcoholic beverage base although most traditional alcoholic beverages in Ethiopia are primarily made from corn, barley, sorghum and finger millet. Teff is used in mixtures with soybean, chickpea and other grains and is becoming popular as baby food because of its high mineral content.

Historically, teff grown in other countries such as Uganda, Australia, Canada, The United States and Kenya has served mainly as animal feed. Indeed, the use of teff as an animal foodstuff is universal. Both its grain and straw provide an excellent nutritional product in comparison to other animal feed.  However, with the growing Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrant communities, the demand for teff as an important cereal group for people continues to rise.

Growing Conditions

Although teff is found in almost all cereal growing areas of Ethiopia, the major areas of production are the central and highland areas. Teff can resist water-logging conditions associated with these regions, however, initial germination of the seed requires specific attention to prevent seed rot in the ground.

Teff is well adapted to the heavy, well-drained, clay soil (vertisol) areas of the Ethiopian highlands where most other cereal crops cannot be grown easily. Teff grows best in moderate altitude levels. The preferred altitude conditions for teff is 1700-2200 meters. This matches most closely with altitudes in the highland areas of Ethiopia at 1800-2100 meters.

Teff Field 2
Teff crop in Idaho. Photo by Wayne Carlson

The 12-hour light schedule that is found in equatorial regions of the world, such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, is the ideal sunlight requirement for flowering and seed formation of the plant. The light requirement can pose particular challenges when the grain is grown in North America with extended summer daylight conditions.  As well, some teff varieties grown in Ethiopia require a longer growing season than growing season in North America.

As a result of the increased demands for teff in Ethiopia and the rising popularity of teff as an alternative grain in the U.S., agricultural practices to support increased growth of this crop are needed. Teff producers and researchers in Michigan and Idaho have worked to adjust the light requirements for increased growth yields of teff.  Commercial production of teff has been happening in Idaho for 25 years, supplying the Ethiopian community in the United States for that time.

The arid lowland areas of Ethiopia support minimal teff production. These areas are sparsely populated because of the severity of the growing season in these regions. Due to its drought-resistant characteristics, the best-suited grains for these growing conditions are sorghum and pearl millet. The nomadic people that most often occupy the lowland areas of Ethiopia base their diet predominately on beef and dairy products or Ethiopian bread (kita in Amharic and kitcha in the Tigrinya language) made from sorghum, millet or barley. Other Ethiopian breads made with yeast are referred to as Ambasha (made of wheat).

Types of Teff

There are several varieties of teff, each with characteristics best suited to specific conditions. It is not in the scope of this paper to discuss the details about all the different varieties of this grain. In general, there are three main types of teff: white, mixed (red, brown, white) and red/brown.

White teff is the preferred type but only grows in certain regions of Ethiopia. White teff grows only in the Highlands of Ethiopia, requires the most rigorous growing conditions, and is the most expensive form of teff. Just like white bread has been a status symbol in the United States, white teff was reserved for the wealthiest and most prestigious families in Ethiopia. The prestige associated with consuming white teff, as well as its more stringent growing conditions, contributes to the increased cost of white teff. The shelf life of engera is extended with the use of white teff.

Teff Grain
Photo by Wayne Carlson

Red/brown teff, the least expensive form and the least preferred type, has the highest iron content. In persons living in areas of the country where consumption of red teff is most prevalent, hemoglobin levels were found to be higher with a decreased risk of anemia related to parasitic infection. As studies of the increased health benefits associated with high iron contents in red teff become elucidated, there is more acceptance of this grain in society. Today in Ethiopia, red teff is becoming more popular related to its increased iron content. The data composition tables available were not able to differentiate the iron content between red and white teff. The average iron content of teff is 62.71mg/4oz grain.  Though to our knowledge no studies investigating the iron content of the soil and its possible effect on the iron contents of the grain have been conducted, it may be possible that the high iron content of the soil contributes to the iron content of the grain.

The third main type of teff is mixed (red/brown and white) and has moderate iron content.

More Health Benefits: Teff and Diabetes Prevention

The other health related benefit of teff is the high fiber content of the grain. This is particularly important in dealing with diabetes and assisting with blood sugar control. Related to its small size, the grain cannot be separated into germ, bran and endosperm to create a variety of other products. Although this creates some disadvantages for the grain, it allows teff to yield a much higher fiber content than other grains (15.3 grams of fiber/4 oz flour, second only to dark rye flour).

There is little published research about the risk and prevalence of diabetes among Ethiopian immigrants in the United States or other Western countries. There have been some studies that look at the rates for certain populations in Ethiopia however, as in most developing countries the data for establishing reliable estimates does not exist. Other researchers have looked at diabetes in the Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel, a subset of the Ethiopian population. Most these studies conclude that the prevalence is increasing for Ethiopians both at home and abroad as their lifestyles (e.g. increased stress) and diet change.

One of the researchers in Israel Guttman, noted in 2002 (1), "Early detection and effective management of diabetes in the Israeli Ethiopian community require in-depth appreciation of its beliefs and traditions. Recent findings indicate that within a decade, this population acquired a relatively high prevalence of diabetes (10 to 17%), which was literally unknown to it prior to immigration"and went on to say that many of the immigrants, including those with diabetes, do not know much about the disease and its management.

In achieving blood glucose control among the Ethiopian immigrant population in Seattle understanding the content and variety of grains used locally to make engera is critical.

Teff in Seattle

Teff flour can be purchased at local ethnic grocery stores and used at home for making traditional Ethiopian bread. Teff flour sold in the Seattle area originates from Idaho, or in some instances, it is imported directly from Ethiopia. The environmental/atmospheric differences or varying water acidities/microflora may alter the growth of the symbiotic yeast in teff flour from Ethiopia as compared to the flour from the U.S. This is an area needing further research and is speculation based on observations by people who brought teff from Ethiopia and couldn't successfully make engera here. How much a role the Green Revolution has played in adapting varieties of teff to the climatic conditions of North America is unknown.

Some people continue to make their own injera at home while others rely on store-bought injera. In Ethiopian grocery stores in Seattle, one can buy fresh injera made with a mixture of teff and whole wheat. A 25-pound bag of teff flour grown in Caldwell, Idaho can be purchased for around $40. Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants living in the Seattle area have adapted their recipes for making ingera by utilizing a variety of different grains, as opposed to using only pure teff flour. The different grains used vary widely. Some people use self-rising flour (a bleached white flour containing yeast with bicarbonate) and teff flour to make engera. Other recipes use a variety of grains including barley, rice, corn, millet and teff flour. Fermentation of engera varies and depends on the families' taste preferences. As teff contains a symbiotic yeast, it can be fermented into a paste for 2-3 days and then used to make the traditional bread cooked in a mesob.

See Injera for more information about how to make engera.

Further Information

  1. Guttman N and Jaffe A.  "We didn't have it in Ethiopia": Preliminary Findings on Attitudes and beliefs of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel regarding diabetes. Abstract #40695. The 130th Annual Meeting of APHA, November 12, 2002. http://apha.confex.com/apha/130am/techprogram/paper_40695.htm
  2. Teff page at EthiopianRestaurant.com
  3. Ketema, Seyfu, "Promoting the conservation and use of underutilized and neglected crops"; International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
  4. The Whole Grain Guide; 1997, Nutrition Action Newsletter, Center for Science in the Public Interest