In our monthly column, One Curious Ingredient, Michelle Peters-Jones explores the history and culinary use of ingredients or dishes that are unfamiliar to her — and probably many of us! Today, Michelle explores teff, an ancient grain making a big, "super food" comeback. And we share some easy teff recipes you can try at home.
I'm no stranger to ancient grains, having worked with farmers who have been nurturing heirloom wheats, as well as being an avid fan of Peter Reinhart and Chad Robertson (both fans of traditional whole grains and techniques in bread making). That said, teff was not on my radar until FBC co-founder Melissa mentioned it as a possible topic for this month's OCI.
Teff was originally cultivated in East Africa, and the grains are actually seeds of a cereal grass commonly called lovegrass. It's a tiny seed (apparently one of the tiniest seeds in the world), no bigger than a poppy seed, and is a known nutritional and health powerhouse. The name teff is thought to come from the Arabic word tahf or the word teffa which means lost, probably due to the small size of the grain.
History and Cultivation of Teff
Teff was one of the plants and grains domesticated by ancient Ethiopian and Eritrean nomadic tribes and farmers. The earliest known variety was around 5000 BC, and this grain has been found in Egyptian pyramids where it was once considered as a last meal for the Pharaohs!
While the grass and grain are well known in East Africa, they haven't been as popular in the rest of the world, partly due to difficulties in growing them in a climate different from that of the East African grassy highlands. But recent advances in agriculture have now enabled the cultivation of the grain in other countries, including Spain, which accounts for a significant source of the world's supply of teff.
In East Africa teff is one of the primary sources of food, particularly due to its versatility and ability to grow in conditions that are unsuitable for other crops. The Whole Grain Council notes, for example, that
... 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.
The crop can also survive drought, heavy and bad soil conditions and only needs a few seeds to grow a field. Add to that its ability to resist crop diseases and it's no wonder that this grain has been a well-kept secret for a long time.
Teff is a summer annual grass and is usually planted in May. Due to its rapid germination and growth, it can be harvested a few months later. In the fields it has a deep yellow, reddish brown or grey colour and the teff harvest is a popular sight in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Teff is more than just a culinary crop in East Africa, with the threshed grass and straw being used for livestock. The dried straw is also used in strengthening buildings and houses built with mud.
Culinary Uses and Nutrition of Teff
One pound of teff seeds can grow into a field that produces a tonne of teff. No wonder it's hailed as a tiny, but mighty superfood!
Teff seeds are a culinary and nutritional powerhouse and are a staple food for the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of East Africa. The grain ranges from a deep reddish brown to a pale ivory colour (with the flavour ranging from nutty to mild) and is used both ground up into flour and whole.
It's the primary ingredient in the Ethiopian sourdough-like flatbread injera, where ground teff flour is mixed with water and left to naturally ferment in its own wild yeasts for a day or more. It's then shaped into a flatbread and cooked, and is usually used as an edible plate from which other dishes are consumed. Whole-grain teff is cooked like porridge (at a ratio of 1 cup teff to 3 cups water for a creamy result) and fermented into alcoholic drinks.
With the recognition of teff as a superfood, the grain is now being used in a lot of dishes, including pancakes, muffins, breads, salads, stews and other baking and savoury dishes. The tiny seeds can be thrown into any baking, adding nutrition and health benefits. Cooked teff has a gelatinous texture and can be used as a thickener for soups and stews. You can easily replace any seeds or grains in your baking or cooking with a smaller quantity of teff.
Nutritionally, teff is well deserving of its title as one of the healthiest grains in the world, similar to quinoa. It's gluten-free and is a major source of protein, carbohydrates, calcium, iron and fibre (the last one is due to the fact that teff is usually processed with its bran and germ intact).
Teff Recipes To Try At Home
These Teff Energy Bars from Dawn at Girl Hearts Food are a great place to start if you want to work with teff. They're packed with teff, chia seeds, chocolate and almond flour, making them gluten free and very easy to put together!
Add teff to your morning routine with these gluten free and dairy free almond Teff Pancakes from Cathy's Gluten Free. It's another easy way to experiment with teff recipes.
Where To Buy Teff
You can buy teff in most health food stores and in the natural food aisles of your supermarkets. Brands to look for are Bob's Red Mill, as well as store brands like Whole Foods.
And finally, did you know that just one pound of teff seeds can grow into a field that produces a tonne of teff? No wonder it's hailed as a tiny, but mighty superfood.
Have you used teff in any way? Let us know in the comments, including a link to any recipes you've posted!