The world seems to have found teff. Not bad for the smallest food grain on earth - one piece is the size of a grain of sand - and better yet when you consider that its name derives from the Amharic word yätäfä, which means "lost," because each grain is so easy to lose if you drop it.
Some scholars have even speculated that because teff is so small, Ethiopians cultivated it before other grains: Why would a culture harvest such a tiny grain if it had alternatives? Others doubt this, saying that the hardiness and nutritional qualities of teff account for its ancient cultivation.
No longer just the unique grain needed to make Ethiopian injera, it's now used as a gluten-free substitute for wheat, suitable for baking everything from cookies and muffins and cobblers to pancakes and pasta. Once available as a food product only from Ethiopia, entrepreneurs in the United States, Australia and Canada now grow and sell it, both for its grain and for its grassy stalk, which makes an excellent livestock forage.
About 300 species of teff grow on several continents, but Ethiopia hosts its greatest diversity. Eragrostis tef, the injera species, almost certainly originated there, although scholars can only speculate about how long ago that happened.
And this is one very nutritious grain. A 1997 study by the Biodiversity Institute of Ethiopia, conducted by Seyfu Ketema, found that white, or magna (pronounced "manya") teff, the kind most popular for making injera, has 56 percent more calcium and 68 percent more iron than wheat. There are also red, black and mixed-seed varieties.
Teff is higher than wheat in a dozen amino acids, especially the essential lysine, and slightly higher in such nutrients as potassium, zinc and aluminum. It contains 11 percent protein, 80 percent complex carbohydrates, and almost four grams of fiber per ounce. Ethiopian athletes believe that teff makes them stronger in competition, so they'll eat it as injera or as a porridge made from the whole grain.
Lost Crops of Africa asserts that one large piece of injera a day supplies an Ethiopian with enough amino acids to sustain life without another protein source, and two pieces are "sufficient to ensure good health."
©Copyright 2010 by Harry Kloman