Ethiopian food is unthinkable without injera, the flexible, sour teff-flour flatbread that doubles as both edible utensil and plate. (And, at the end of the meal, is the best part, soaked as it is with the juices of all the stews.) I remember the first time I saw injera, folded and tucked in a basket on the table at the first Ethiopian restaurant I ever visited. I thought it was a basket of napkins, and wondered why they thought we’d need so many.
I learned better, to my enduring delight. And frustration. Because there are no Ethiopian restaurants in Albuquerque. (I just discovered that I am wrong about that, sort of: Talking Drums African restaurant on San Pedro near Gibson now serves Ethiopian food daily – no longer Fridays only – with a selection of six or seven toppings. We tried it once and it was quite good. I especially liked the bean dish.)
In any case. the scarcity of Ethiopian food in Albuquerque made us want to make it at home. Most Ethiopian food, at least as it is found in the U.S., is simple: stews of meat or beans or vegetables, flavored with niter kibbeh (spiced clarified butter) and Ethiopia’s signature spice blend, berbere.
But it all must be served on injera. And injera, it turns out, is a puzzlement.
This time last year, Arne and I were taking an online food-science class. It was really fun and surprisingly challenging; the homeworks involved such tasks as calculating molecular weights. For our final project, we decided to tackle injera. The few Ethiopian cookbooks I’d looked at – there is to my knowledge no really usable English-language Ethiopian cookbook yet – had incredibly daunting recipes; in fact, I am starting to believe that the reason there isn’t a workable cookbook is because no one has unlocked the riddle of a reliable injera recipe that is friendly to U.S. kitchens.
But there were some approaches on the internet that I thought might work. We tried a few versions of a basic countertop-fermented injera recipe, as well as a kind of quickbread version suggested by Marcus Samuelsson, a top-level chef of Ethiopian ancestry who I thought might have some insight.
For a longer version of the story, check out the video we made for the class… But be warned, you’ll get a glimpse of how messy my kitchen is, as well as the fact that cats roam our countertops largely unchecked.
It occurred to me at the time that a regular sourdough starter might work to make injera, but I was still struggling with full-blown achalasia, and it was really hard for me to eat bread. It wasn’t the time to undertake the commitment of sourdough.
But nowadays I can eat bread again (though it’s still best to chew carefully). I ordered a sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour, fed it according to the instructions, and got to the business of playing. I’ve made several loaves of bread, and made injera twice.
The first time I tried it, I was amazed. The recipe I worked from used just four ingredients: unfed sourdough starter, water, a pinch of salt, and teff flour. (I substituted a little white flour for some of the teff.) I mixed the batter and let it ferment on the counter all day, then asked Arne to bake it – making crepes, injera, and the like is a job that Arne enjoys and I hate.
The batter cooked up beautifully, developing the signature bubbles on the unbaked side. The breads were just a tad gummy and slightly too thick, folding less gracefully than one might hope, but they had a recognizably sour flavor with none of the putrid ick of the injera in our experiment. They made the base of a great dinner, topped with lentil stew, doro wat (chicken stew with berbere), and the fabulously simple Ethiopian cabbage-and-carrot saute I adore.
Were they perfect? Definitely not. I wanted them a bit more sour, and more thin and pliable. When we tried again, I used more sourdough starter and added more water to the batter, but neither seemed to make a lot of difference.
More tweaking is in the works, but in the meantime, I am ecstatic to have a workable recipe for this African staple, even if it does require the cook to have a sourdough starter available. (And teff flour; Bob’s Red Mill is a nationally available brand.) Here it is, along with the delicious cabbage recipe. If you try it, please tell me how it works for you!
Sourdough Injera (beta version)
Makes 5 or 6 9-inch breads, serving 2
Hands-on time: 30 minutes Total time: 8-10 hours
1/3 cup sourdough starter, unfed (straight from the refrigerator)
1 cup teff flour (or 3/4 cup teff and 1/4 cup all-purpose)
1 cup water
large pinch salt
a drizzle of cooking oil
In the morning, combine the sourdough starter, water, and flour, and stir until fully combined. Cover and leave at room temperature 8 to 10 hours, until dinnertime. The mixture should look bubbly. Stir in the salt and heat a crepe pan or similar pan over medium-high heat until very hot.
Brush the pan lightly with oil and swirl about 1/3 cup of batter onto the pan, trying to spread it evenly to the edges to form a nice circle. (If you’ve made crepes, this will be a familiar process. If not, keep trying!) Injera are cooked on one side only; do not flip! Cook until bubbles appear and pop on the top side, and it becomes fairly dry, two to five minutes. (A lid helps; if you have one, cover for about half the cooking time.) Remove to a cooling rack or clean kitchen towel. We found these stuck together when hot, so don’t fold or stack them until they have cooled to just warm, five to ten minutes.
When the injera are fairly cool, fold or roll most of them and put in a basket or bowl to place on the table. Place one (or more, if small) on a dinner plate and ladle a few kinds of Ethiopian stews on top, enough for two people to share. (Or make plates for each diner… but sharing is more fun.) Tear pieces from the folded injera and use them to scoop up bites of the stews.
If you are very friendly with the other diner, it is apparently traditional to feed one another bites, making Ethiopian food potentially a very romantic dinner option!
Ethiopian Cabbage and Carrot Stew with Turmeric
Serves 4 with other dishes
Hands-on time: 10 minutes Total time: 30 to 40 minutes
1/4 cup olive oil or other cooking oil
1 onion, sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
1/2 head cabbage, roughly shredded
1 medium potato, cut in 1/2-inch cubes, optional
A few grinds freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
Heat the oil in a deep skillet with a lid. Add the onion and salt; cook 5 minutes or until the onion starts to turn translucent. Stir in the carrot, cabbage, potato if using, pepper, and cumin; cover and cook 15 to 20 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not mushy. (Potatoes may take an extra 5 minutes or so to become fully tender.) Stir in the turmeric. Taste; add more salt or spices if necessary.
Serve spooned over injera, or use as a side dish with non-Ethiopian foods.