Ethiopian Cuisine — Injera: Sourdough Pancake-Like Flatbreads

Ethiopian cuisine has a very different feel than those of other parts of Africa.  Ethiopia is one of the few areas of Africa never to have been colonized by any European power, and while European influences exist within its borders, Ethiopian cuisine has held on to its own native traditions very strongly.

Ethiopia quick facts:

  • Capital: Addis Ababa
  • Population: 93,877,025 (2013 estimate)
  • Notable Ethiopians: Ras Tafari, Lucy, Queen of Sheba, Haile Gebrselassie

A typical Ethiopian meal is served very differently than in other parts of the world.  Central to the meal is injera (recipe follows), a pancake-like bread made of the local grain teff, whose flour is made into a thin batter and fermented several days before use.  Injera serves as plate, utensil, and food item.  Using specialized round clay discs heated over hot coals, injera can be up to two feet in diameter, large enough to be used as a serving platter for an entire meal for several people.  The half-bread, half-platter is spread directly on the tabletop, and a variety of salads, spicy stews called wot, or slightly less fiery vegetable dishes are served family-style directly on top of the injera.  Western-style utensils are traditionally not used; instead a diner tears a piece of his or her injera, using it to secure a piece of wot from the communal serving.

As a gesture of friendship or love, Ethiopians practice the custom of feeding each other, called gursha.  To perform a gursha,a piece of injera is wrapped around some wot and placed directly in the mouth of the object of the gursha-performer’s affection.  The greater the size of the gursha, the greater the display of affection.  Bart and Lisa Simpson, despite all their usual bickering, took to the practice quite fondly in a 2011 episode of The Simpsons.

The most important characteristics of good injera are the sour taste from the fermentation of the batter and the spongy texture.  While made from teff flour in Ethiopia, we had difficulty finding teff locally and have adapted a recipe to use all-purpose flour available at any American supermarket.  We have come to understand that in areas with significant Ethiopian, Eritrean, or Somali populations (like the Renton or South Seattle areas of King County, Washington) teff is easier to come by, and some shops even have pre-made injera in family-sized convenience packs.

Injera

adapted from the blogs How To Cook Great Ethiopian and Saras’s Kitchen and from the book Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook by Joetta Handric Schlabach via The Fresh Loaf’s forum thread on injera

MAKES 4 INJERA

  • 1 1/4 cups warm water
  • 1 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup masa harina
  • additional water as needed

Ethiopian injera is made from a sourdough batter that has fermented several days with the natural yeasts present in the air.  We chose not to rely on nature and used granular active dry yeast.  To wake up the yeast, we mixed it into one and a quarter cups of warm water with some brown sugar and salt:

yeaststarted

After about fifteen minutes the yeast had made its presence apparent via a foamy top layer:

yeastactive

Next the dry ingredients, our flour and masa harina (corn flour treated with lye used to make fresh tortillas; we also used it to make our Salvadoran pupusas) were mixed together in a large bowl:

flourinbowl

The yeast and water mixture was added and stirred thoroughly:

battertoothick

This texture would be fine as a loose bread dough, but what we were after was something a little thinner than pancake batter.  To thin our dough, we ended up adding a half cup extra water in small increments until we had reached the desired texture:

battermixed

The bowl was covered with a cloth and left on the countertop:

injerabattercovered

Over the next few days we knew the yeast would work breaking down the starches in the flour and producing lactic acid and carbon dioxide (which in the presence of water converts into carbonic acid), both of which contribute to sourdough’s tart flavor.

Four days later, the day we set aside to prepare the rest of our Ethiopian meal, we unveiled a bubbly cauldron of sour beer-smelling batter ready for the fry pan:

injerabatterdayof

The wet layer was thoroughly stirred back into the rest of the batter, giving us a consistency similar to before the fermentation:

injerabattermixed

Once the rest of our Ethiopian meal was ready, we took to cooking our injera.  One of our trusty cast iron skillets was heated on medium-low, and once hot the batter was poured into the pan in a spiral pattern, starting from the outside edge of the pan and working inward.  The pan was then gently swirled to fill any gaps:

injerabatterinpan

and covered with a lid to steam the flatbreads:

injeracovered

Once the tops of the injera were dry to the touch and dotted with little craters, and the edges had started to come away from the skillet, our injera were ready to eat.  After four days of bubbly fermentation, they were done in under a minute:

injeradone

Though cooked similarly to pancakes, injera have a spongier, sturdier, and more pliable texture, making them perfect to dip spicy Ethiopian wot.  For a future meal we would double or triple this recipe, since it made just four injera.  That was enough to get us through our Ethiopian dinner, but left us nothing to dip into our leftovers.

Injera takes a lot of time to ferment to develop the proper sour flavor, but it is not difficult to make a passable version at home and nothing could be better suited to sopping up spicy Ethiopian stews.

 

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