Teff is a type of grain, much like wheat, except it is very tiny. Indeed, the word “Teff” is believed to have been derived from the Amharic word teffa which translates to “lost”, and was so named probably due to the the fact that the size of the grain are so small as to be easily lost if spilled.
It is the smallest grain in the world, measuring about 1/32nd of an inch in diameter and 150 grains of Teff weigh as much as just one grain of wheat. One important factor culinary wise, is that Teff is gluten free and therefore suitable for people with coeliac disease or other gluten intolerances. Teff comes in three varieties: white, brown and red. The white types are milder in flavour and are generally the preferred variety for cooking.
Origins of Teff
Teff is an ancient grain and is believed to have originated in Ethiopia possibly as much as 4000 years ago. An earlier identification of Teff seeds from an ancient Egyptian pyramid is now considered unreliable, however it’s not impossible that the Ancient Egyptians too ate a form of Teff.
Cultivation and processing of Teff
Teff has been widely cultivated and used in Ethiopia and Eritrea for centuries and has also grown in South Africa, India and and Australia. It is a fine stemmed annual grass characterised by a large crown, many shoots, and a shallow root system.
Its adaptability to growing in extreme environments ranging from drought to waterlogged soil conditions makes it the ideal staple crop for places where extremes occur during the growing season. The plants germinate quickly and are a reliable low risk crop provided they receive sufficient daylight as they are day length sensitive, requiring 12 hours of daylight for optimum performance.
Because of the seeds’ minute size, just a handful can be sown over a very large area, making it ideal for poorer rural farmers especially as 1lb of Teff seed can produce up to 1 ton of grain in as little as 12 weeks.
Nutritional Values of Teff
Because the seed is so small, it is not practicable to separate the germ from the husk, so when making Teff flour, the entire seed is milled and consumed. This results in richer nutritional values.
It has high levels of calcium, phosphorus, iron, copper, barium, Potassium and thiamine, contains all 8 essential amino acids and has lysine levels higher than that of wheat or barley. Teff is also high in protein, carbohydrates and fibre and contains no gluten.
Furthermore, its complex carbohydrates i.e. slowly digestible starches, give it a low glycaemic index which makes it suitable for diabetics and those wishing to lose weight as well as endurance athletes. Many believe the superior performances of Ethiopians in long distance running can be attributed to the Teff consumed as part of their normal diet, particularly in the form of injera – a type of flatbread widely eaten in Ethiopia.
Buying and storing Teff
Although it is still sometimes difficult to find Teff grains or flour in high street supermarkets many natural whole-foods stores will stock it. It can also be bought online from various stockists.
Store it in a cool, dry area in a sealed container or packet.
Teff in cooking
The grain is gluten free and has a mild, nutty and slightly sweet flavour. The darker the grain, the more earthy the flavour. The uncooked grain can be added or substituted for part of the seeds or nuts in recipes and can be used as a thickener for soups, stews and casseroles.
The cooked grains can be mixed with other ingredients such as beans or tofu to make burgers or can be used to make salads similar to Bulgur Wheat. Allow 450ml/15fl.oz of liquid (water or stock) to cook 100g/4oz Teff grains which will take about 20 minutes. Once cooked they have a slightly sticky consistency which enables them to be moulded or formed into solid masses once it has cooled, which can be used like polenta.
They can also be cooked like porridge and make a healthy and nutritious breakfast, especially when served with sliced fruit.
Teff flour is gluten free however, like many other gluten free flours, it is necessary to add additional ingredients to create a stable structure when making leavened yeast based bread. In other recipes such as biscuits, cakes, pie crust pastry and pancakes, it can be substituted for ordinary wheat flour with good results.