Of all the countries in world, only one has a cuisine that relies on a type of bread that dates to pre-biblical times.
That cuisine is Ethiopian. Its bread is called injera.
Injera is no ordinary loaf of bread. It’s not a loaf at all. It’s a big disc, like a larger-than-life pancake made from a batter fermented like sourdough. The thick batter is poured onto a wide, hot griddle until little holes form and pop on top. This floppy pancake, sometimes called Moses bread, is spongy and dark with a vague purple cast. It’s set on a tray where the bread becomes a dinner plate upon which a variety of Ethiopian meat and vegetables dishes are set neatly on top, juices and all.
Ethiopians eat with their hands, so more injera is rolled up for the diner to tear into pieces. These bits are used by the right hand to pinch mouthfuls of the food, giving injera also the role of a fork.
Finally, at the end of the meal, anyone lucky enough to still be hungry finishes off the sauce-soaked injera.
Ethiopian cuisine is exotic and complex with flavors. Yet for a cook of modest abilities, Ethiopian lush chicken, lamb or beef stews and sautés are not all that complex to make once ingredients are gathered. Holding back the home cook is the long process that produces injera.
Making life easier is a store-bought injera. Called Nile Injera, it’s produced by Kedija Adam, 37, an Ethiopian woman who came to Sacramento eight years ago. She is licensed by Sacramento County to work in her tidy kitchen under the California Homemade Food Act.
“I was interested to have a business,” says Adam, mother of three ages 6, 4, and 3. “When I came here, I was working outside the home, and when I had a baby, I decided to stay home because I didn’t have any kin here to stay home.”
With no assistant, she wakes up at 4 a.m. and finishes 100 injera, packages them in 20 plastic bags of five injera each and, wearing a colorful hijab, gets in her van and delivers them.
“It’s the hardest thing to make of the whole meal,” says Adam’s friend, Zion Tadesse, owner of Queen Sheba restaurant, where injera-making has a dedicated room near the kitchen.
“Everything has to be just right,” Tadesse says. “It can’t be too hot or too cold, or it won’t come up.” She says most families in Ethiopia have someone in the home making injera every day. “But here?” she says, “Even if you’re Ethiopian, no one has time.”
“I have a lot of appreciation for injera,” says Adam. “People say, ‘I’m glad we found injera.’ ”
Adam starts with a stiff ball of dough made from yeast, barley flour and teff, the ancient cereal grain that grows well in Ethiopia’s tough soil and harsh, hot climate. Teff has many attributes, including being rich in calcium, protein and fiber. It’s also gluten-free. But it’s expensive and at times difficult to get, so Adam finds she must add the barley flour, which contains small amounts of gluten.
To the stiff dough, Adam adds water. “There are recipes with measurements, but they’re not perfect,” she says. She works by eye and feel.
After two hours, the batter bubbles, ready to fill the surface of her 17-inch electric nonstick griddle.
“I watch the bubbles, the ‘eyes,’ ” she says, as if describing making flapjacks. When she’s happy with the holes, Adam covers the baking injera with a lid for a second or two. Without flipping, she slides the injera onto a round straw mat. It’s over in about a minute, and it’s on to the next one.
“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not,” Adam says. “I think it’s the weather. In our country, we should have the bubbles all over. Here, when we say it’s not good injera, the ‘eyes’ are too little, and the bread is like a brick. When the bubbles are everywhere, that one is perfect.”
Business is good. Does injera make a profit? Adam giggles. “My husband is an accountant, and he asks the same thing.”
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.