By Melissa Schmitt – WASHINGTON — Teff. Most people haven’t heard of this nutrient-packed grain grown in the highlands of East Africa, but if you’ve ever dined in an Ethiopian restaurant, you’ve eaten it.
And if you want to eat it again, it’s going to cost you.
Teff is the main ingredient of injera, the sour flatbread that is a symbol of Ethiopian hospitality, and as ubiquitous as Americans’ morning coffee.
But teff is becoming increasingly scarce as the global food crisis expands. According to Eyob Tolina, the economic officer at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, his government stopped exporting teff and corn two months ago, an attempt to stabilize prices back home.
That means less injera bread at higher prices for the sizeable Washington-area Ethiopian population.
“At home, injera is a big, big traditional food,” said Fikru Teka, the owner of Woder Ethiopia, a market and bakery in Silver Spring, Md., that makes and distributes injera. “You have to have injera.”
Injera is the centerpiece of communal Ethiopian dining –entrees are often served on platters atop the pancake-shaped bread. Diners then gather around and break off pieces of injera, using it instead of cutlery.
The halt in exports worries some Ethiopian bakers and market owners, who are watching their supplies of injera and other Ethiopian goods diminish as they are forced to raise prices.
“We don’t have anything right now,” lamented Aki Yagar, who co-owns the Nile Market in Silver Spring, with her husband, Mani Kebede. “It’s going to be harder to get anything in the future.”
Yagar and Kebede estimate that 80 percent of their inventory comes directly from Ethiopia. They used to sell injera, which they order from local Ethiopian bakeries, for $5 per bag, but have been forced to increase the price by a dollar over the last six months.
And their customers are angry and suspicious.
“They complain about it every time,” said Kebede. “They don’t trust you, they think you are just adding to the price.”
Kebede and Yagar blame the halt in exports for the rising cost of injera and other baked goods in their store. They say their distributors have had to pay a premium on teff and some are even mixing in other types of flour to cut costs.
Distributors are delivering less injera — one injera maker is dropping off three bags instead of the normal 10 to the Nile Market every day..
At Woder Ethiopia, Teka says he stopped ordering teff from home a long time ago and now gets it from a handful of farms in the United States. But costs have increased 25 percent in the last year, and he blames rising fuel prices.
“When gas goes up, commodities go up,” he said.
Teka said his business is holding steady, but he’s not sure how much longer he can ride out the storm.
If you look at the dwindling supply at the Nile Market, you can see why the customers are upset.
“If the government continues to block teff,” said shopper Kassahua Hailu, “it will get scary for us.”
Source: Medill Reports