Teff, or tef, is a cereal grain native to Northeastern Africa and Southwestern Arabia. Although it has been used in Ethiopia in particular for centuries, this grain was not widely known in other parts of the world until the late twentieth century, when farmers in the Central United States and Australia began to experiment with the grain. A growing demand for alternative grains has made it more readily available, especially in urban areas. Typically, health food stores and large grocers stock stock either flour or whole grain types of teff.
The word comes from the Amharic language. Teff means “lost,” a reference to the fact that the grains are so small that dropped grains will be impossible to find. The fine grains grow on long, delicate stems of an annual grass in the lovegrass group, the genus Eragrostis. In fact, the grains are in fact so small that enough seeds to sow an entire field can easily be held in the hand or in a small bag, making it an extremely portable crop.
Many plants in the lovegrass group are cultivated for use as animal fodder. Typically, animals graze fields of the grasses, although some farmers may also cut and bale grasses. Teff has been eaten by humans and animals for thousands of years, with botanists suspecting that it may have been domesticated as early as 4,000 BCE. It is a staple food in Ethiopian cuisine.
The grain has a very mild, nutty flavor, and it also packs a serious nutritional punch. Teff has an excellent balance of amino acids, and it is also high in protein, calcium, and iron. Along with other alternative grains like quinoa and millet, this grain has become well-known in the health foods community because of its great nutritional value.
There are a number of ways to use teff. In Ethiopia, it is the primary ingredient in injera, a type of fermented bread served with most meals, much like naan in India. It can also be ground into flour to make an excellent gluten-free flour alternative, and can be used to make pie crusts, cookies, breads, and an assortment of other baked goods. Teff can also be eaten whole and steamed, boiled, or baked as a side dish or a main course.