Portable Cultures, Food futures: How to make Injera in Los Angeles

Published as part of an environmental storybook with the UCLA Laboratory for Environmental Story Strategies (LENS), with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA's documentary film program at the School of Theater, Film and Television. The third storyline examines current innovations and visions for ecological, equitable food systems. Discover more stories about Food Futures here.

Imagining sustainable futures for the food culture in Los Angeles means embracing movements for local food, the history of the city and the ambitions of a cosmopolitan city where multicultural eating experiences are admired, sought after and valorised. As an experiment in what this intersection is with the local and global average for LA food futures, I started this experiment to create a culturally specific dish that is popular in Los Angeles and requires at least one main ingredient that is not localized produced. I was pleased with the Ethiopian injera because it is central to Ethiopian cuisine and Little Ethiopia is one of LA's iconic neighborhoods. But I also chose injera, because the main ingredient of the dish is Teff – a millet-like grain that is native to Ethiopia and Eritrea and is grown mainly in that region.

Injera served in a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko

injera served in a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko

To make injera, a spongy Ethiopian flatbread, you need teff flour, water, a suitable container, air, patience and a trained eye. To make injera in Los Angeles, you may also need some wheat or barley flour, a starter with yeast or sourdough and an experienced teacher.

When you look for teff flour like I did in Little Ethiopia, you will most likely be confronted with bags of 25 pounds of the stuff. I decided that I wanted to try brown teff because it is said to have a slightly richer taste. Ivory teff, however, is available earlier and seems to be preferred over its brown-gray counterpart because it looks tastier. My plans changed when I could not find bags of too large size. It is significant that most stores in Little Ethiopia only have 10 and 25 pound bags. Injera is a staple in a food culture that emphasizes the common food, so this was not surprising. When I finally found smaller bags, they seemed to have been designed for people like me who just ventured into the East African world of teff and injera. They were all ivory teff, but I was grateful enough to have found them.

Ethiopian market shelf I Comfort Azubuko

Ethiopian market shelf I Comfort Azubuko

The next step is to mix the teff flour in a paste and start the fermentation process. Many of the Ethiopian video recipes that I could find online are completely in Amharic. This seems to indicate a valuable tradition of preserving customs and cultures through language and community. I admired this phenomenon even though I am effectively on the outside. Fortunately, there were a few with English subtitles. The alternative to this are tutorials from people who were not Ethiopian or Eritric, but who were or were not interested in reproducing an "authentic" recipe, or in ways to make adjustments for injera. However, it is up to you to decide whose methods you use, but one thing they all have in common: a container with a well-closing lid that is deeper than wide.

In this container – in many cases a bucket – you combine teff flour and water to give a lump-free mixture the consistency of a thick muddy paste. This must be done by hand. It is the best way to feel the texture of the mix, to ensure that it is free of lumps and wet spots. This part of the process feels like a ritualized aspect of making injera.

Mixing the injera batter I Comfort Azubuko at home

mixing injera at home I Comfort Azubuko

Once everything is combined and the right consistency is achieved, scrape the sides of the container with your palm and shape the mixture into a flat surface. Rinse the sides of the container to prevent rotting due to exposure to air, and cover the mixture with more water until it is completely submerged under a layer of about 2.5 cm thick. I have to reckon with the fact that some recipes use yeast in the pasta mixture. But I discovered that when I used yeast, the batter seemed more volatile and sharp, although I refreshed the water daily. When I finally cooked my yeast batter, it was sour and completely inedible.

Cover the container with the lid and leave it in an undisturbed corner of the kitchen. Every day for the next three to five days, you must carefully discard the top layer of water and replace it with fresh water. The warmer your kitchen is, the faster you have to go to the next step. For the summer climate of L.A. I would not recommend more than four days of fermentation. My old apartment in Ladera Heights, free from modern comforts such as air conditioning, seemed to ask even fewer days during a hot May holiday in May.

Cross section of Injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko

Cross section of injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko

On the day before you cook your injera, you need the afsit to soften the texture of the batter. When I investigated ways of making injera, the afsit technique seemed to be more common among the Amharic-speaking cooks of Ethiopian origin. You start by removing the old water layer from the fermenting batter. Put a cup of fresh water to the boil. When it begins to simmer, get a spoon full of the batter and boil it in the boiling water until it thickens and becomes translucent. To prevent lumps from forming, first pour some hot water into the batter and then slowly stir it in the boiling water. Once the outlet cools down, combine it thoroughly with the rest of the batter, cover with another layer of water and let sit for another day.

The day after afsit day, it is time to cook the injera on a non-stick coating. You will notice that the muddy mixture is relaxed from the first day in a loose batter. However, you may need to add more water to give it a consistency that is slightly lighter than pancake batter.

Injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko

injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko

If you make injera at home in Los Angeles, you would probably use a pancake baking sheet, crepe paper or frying pan with non-stick coating. The common aspect caught in the large size of traditional injera is lost because you probably do not have an anti-stick surface that is large enough to recreate the size. Injera is something that is made in large parties, because it is both a key component of a shared dining experience. If you only go to an Ethiopian restaurant, you probably have an immature experience with the food, because of this common element. It is that or a lot of leftovers.

To prepare the injera, heat your non-stick coating of your choice. Use a cup or ladle with a spout and pour a continuous spiral from the outside of your pan until you have a complete circle. Watch how the batter forms bubbles and if 80 percent of the bubbles or "eyes" are unfolded, cover the pan with a lid and let it rest for a minute. The steam from the batter must boil the surface of the injera for the rest of the way. Remove from the heat and place on a towel. Repeat until you have a pile of injera to keep each other warm and soft.

Injera served in a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko

injera served in a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko

If you are thinking of copying the injera of most Ethiopian restaurants, you should consider using wheat or barley flour in your mixture to give it some elasticity. Teff is a gluten-free pellet, which means that my 100 percent teff injera was quite crumbly and had very little elasticity. Also due to its gluten-free nature, teff is gaining popularity in the United States. It is now grown in Idaho and Nevada, divided by American companies such as Maskal teff and Bob's Red Mill. However, you should not expect to find recipes for injera under the recipe recommendations for this "exotic" grain. Instead there will be recipes for pastries, puddings and bread. The good news is that finding teff here in Los Angeles does not have to be very difficult. However, how widely we spread the net of the & # 39; local & # 39; when companies such as Maskal Teff and Bob & # 39; s Red Mill claim that they are supplying textured teff here in the United States?

It was a challenge to actually learn this recipe from the internet. Making injera seems to be a ritually-filled cooking tradition passed on from generation to generation. This was only vaguely shown in the instruction videos in Amhaars. Unfortunately, I only had to rely on the translated video & # 39; s and the English language in my attempt to recreate it and that felt unfair. For example, when my first batch turned out to be a failure, it seemed clear to me that I needed an experienced teacher to know exactly when the batch had changed. I only discovered that it was completely wrong the day I cooked it to injera.

Top view: seating in a restaurant in Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles. | Comfort Azubuko

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