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

Photo from a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko
Photo from a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko | Comfort Azubuko
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Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The third storyline explores current innovations and visions for ecological, equitable food systems. Find more stories envisioning Food Futures here.

To imagine sustainable futures for food culture in Los Angeles means embracing movements for eating local, the city’s histories, and the aspirations of a cosmopolitan city where multicultural food experiences are admired, sought-after, and valorized. As an experiment in what this intersection of the local and the global mean for L.A. food futures, I embarked on this experiment to make a culturally specific dish that is popular in Los Angeles and requires at least one main ingredient that is not produced locally. I settled on 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 dish’s main ingredient is Teff — a millet-like grain indigenous to Ethiopia and Eritrea and grown mainly in that region.

Injera served at a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko
Injera served at a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko | 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 might also need some wheat or barley flour, yeast or sourdough starter, and an experienced teacher.

When you search for teff flour as I did in Little Ethiopia, you will most likely be confronted by 25-pound bags of the stuff. I decided that I wanted to try brown teff, since it is said to have a slightly richer taste. However, ivory teff is more readily available and seems to be preferred over its brownish gray counterpart because it appears more palatable. My plans changed when I couldn’t find trial-sized bags of either teff. It is telling that most of the shops in Little Ethiopia only have 10 and 25 pound bags. Injera is a staple in a food culture that emphasizes communal eating, so this was not surprising. When I eventually found smaller bags, they seemed to be designed for people like me who were just venturing 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 | Comfort Azubuko

The next step is to mix the teff flour into a paste and begin the fermentation process. A lot of the Ethiopian video recipes I could find online are entirely in Amharic. This seems to point to a valuable tradition of preserving customs and cultures through language and community. I admired this phenomenon even as I stand effectively on the outside. Thankfully, there were a few with English subtitles. The alternative to these are tutorials by people who were not Ethiopian or Eritrean but were either interested in reproducing an “authentic” recipe, or in teaching ways to make adaptations for injera. However, while it is up to the you to decide whose methods you employ, one thing they all have in common is a container, with a tight-fitting lid, that is deeper than it is wide.

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

Mixing injera batter at home I Comfort Azubuko
Mixing injera batter at home I Comfort Azubuko | Comfort Azubuko

Once everything is combined and the right consistency is reached, you must scrape down the sides of the container with your palm and form the mixture into a level surface. Rinse down the sides of the container, to avoid any rot due to exposure to air, and continue to cover the mixture with more water until it is completely submerged under a layer about an inch or two in thickness. I should note that some recipes call for yeast in the paste mixture. But, I found that when I used yeast, the batter seemed more volatile and grew pungent even though I refreshed the water daily. When I eventually cooked my yeasted batter, it was acrid and completely inedible.

Cover the container with its lid and let sit in an undisturbed corner of the kitchen. Every day for the next three to five days, you should carefully throw out the top water layer and replace it with fresh water. The warmer your kitchen is, the quicker you should move on to the next step. For L.A.’s summer climate, I would recommend no more than four days of fermentation. My old Ladera Heights apartment, free of such modern comfort as air conditioning, seemed to demand even fewer days during a hot May week.

Cross-section of Injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko
Cross-section of Injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko | Comfort Azubuko

On the day before you cook your injera, you should prepare the afsit to help soften the texture of the batter. When I researched ways to make injera, the afsit technique seemed to be more prevalent among the Amharic-speaking cooks of Ethiopian descent. You begin by draining the old water layer from the fermenting batter. Set a cup of fresh water to boil. When it begins to simmer, take out one ladle full of the batter and cook it in the boiling water until it thickens and becomes translucent. To prevent any lumps from forming introduce some of the hot water into the batter first, and then slowly stir it into the boiling water. Once the afsit cools down, thoroughly combine it with the rest of the batter, cover with another layer of water and let sit for one more day.

The day after afsit day, it is time to cook the injera on a non-stick surface. You will find that the muddy mixture from day one has relaxed into a loose batter. Even so, you might need to add some more water to get it to a consistency that is slightly lighter than pancake batter.

Injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko
Injera batter during fermentation I Comfort Azubuko | Comfort Azubuko

Making injera at home in Los Angeles, you would probably use a pancake griddle, crepe maker, or non-stick frying pan. The communal aspect captured in the large size of traditional injera is lost because you are not likely to have a non-stick surface large enough to recreate the size. Injera is something made in big batches because it is both a staple and the main element of a communal eating experience. Going to an Ethiopian restaurant alone, you are likely to have a stunted experience of the food, because of this communal element. It is either that or lot of leftovers.

To cook the injera, heat up your nonstick surface of choice. Using a cup or ladle with a spout, pour a continuous spiral from the outside of your pan going in, until you have a full circle. Watch the batter form bubbles, and when 80 percent of the bubbles or “eyes” have popped, cover the pan with a lid and let it sit for one minute. The steam from the batter should cook the surface of the injera the rest of the way. Remove from the heat, and place onto a towel. Repeat, until you have a stack of injera to keep each other warm and soft.

Injera served at a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko
Injera served at a restaurant I Comfort Azubuko | Comfort Azubuko

If you have in mind to recreate the injera of most Ethiopian restaurants, you would need to consider using either wheat or barley flour in your mixture to lend some elasticity. Teff is a gluten-free grain, which means that my 100-percent teff injera was quite crumbly and had very little elasticity. Also as a result of its gluten-free nature, teff is gaining popularity in the United States. It is now cultivated in Idaho and Nevada, distributed by American companies such as Maskal teff and Bob’s Red Mill. However, you should not expect to find any recipes for injera under the recipe recommendations for this “exotic” grain. Instead, there will be recipes for porridges, puddings, and breads. The good news is that finding teff right here in Los Angeles should not be very difficult. However, how wide do we cast the net of the “local” when companies like Maskal Teff and Bob’s Red Mill claim to supply teff grown “right here in the United States”?

It was a challenge to actually learn this recipe from the internet. Making injera appears to be a ritual filled cooking tradition passed down from generation to generation. This was only vaguely conveyed in the instructional videos in Amharic. Sadly, I had to rely only on the translated videos and the English language in my bid to recreate it and that felt disingenuous. For instance, when my first batch turned out to be a failure, it seemed apparent to me that I needed an experienced teacher to identify exactly when the batch turned. I only discovered it was all wrong on the day I cooked it into injera.

Top image: Seating at a restaurant in Los Angeles' Little Ethiopia. | Comfort Azubuko

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