Injera's Place in Ethiopian Culture

by Berhanu Hagos

Ethiopia is located in the horn of Africa which is the oldest independent country and its culture and traditions are unique in many respects from the rest of African nations. The geography of the country varies from high mountains and great plateaus to grasslands, forests and deserts. The major ethnic groups, predominantly Semetic, speak different languages, and occupy this vast country.

One of the most important areas of Ethiopia’s culture is its food. Ethiopians have their own beliefs and attitudes relating to foods—in this regard, injera’s place in Ethiopian culture is significant and prestigious. In Ethiopia, there are national and religious holidays that people desire to celebrate, whether an important events in their sociocultural, historical, religious and/or special friendship gatherings, with plentiful servings of food and drinks.

Injera is prepared from teff, an ancient grain grown in the highlands of Ethiopia. Teff has a very high level of iron. Injera is a major food staple, and provides approximately two-thirds of the diet in Ethiopia. With its high iron content, different research studies have concluded that the lack of anemia in Ethiopia is considered to be due to the available iron from teff. Injera can be described as a soft, porous, thin pancake, which has a sour taste. Teff is low in gluten and therefore, the bread remains quite flat. Teff flour is often mixed with other cereal flours, but the flavor and quality of injera prepared from mixtures is considered less tasty. Injera is also prepared from different grains such as barley, wheat, and maize or millet flour. The degree of sour taste is imparted by the duration of the fermentation process. If the dough is fermented for only a short period of time, injera has a tasty sweet flavor. Injera is eaten with fingers, tearing off a piece of injera and dipping it in the accompanied “wat.”

Injera is practically what makes Ethiopian food Ethiopian and appears in some other places in the world. Injera is famous particularly in East Africa—Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and goes across the Red Sea to Yemen. It is in every Ethiopian's mind that Injera is migrating together with them; you can find injera whereever Ethiopians live. Here in Seattle, Washington, you can get injera in at least thirty restaurants and mini shops. Ethiopian cooking is big on long-cooked onions, fresh ginger, garlic, chilies and clarified butter, so the flavor is delicious. Women manage these ingredients in a way that keeps any one from dominating a dish. The tibs wat, for instance, a dish of braised beef, or lamb is delicious for many. The flavor that comes first is butter that has either been infused with spices and berbere—its ingredients are red hot pepper, herbs, dried onion, garlic and salt-- or have absorbed a good amount of seasoning from the dish as it was cooking. The special flavor of braised beef or lamb meat is also the other, and it tastes of good quality.

Let me take you again to the vegetarian dishes. The vegetarian combination plate (we call it combo) includes a sampling of several dishes: red lentils (splinted or whole) finished with tomato and berbere, the same chili and spice combo in the tibs wat; kik alicha wat, a good amount split dried peas prepared with spicy aromas; a helping of cooked cabbage called “gomen”; a vegetarian dish made of ground chickpeas mixed in spicy chili sauce which we call it “shiro wat”; with a side of different veggies. This combination is the best food to refresh the vegetarians in their life. All are presented on the top of injera, it seems impossible without it—no satisfaction at all unless injera is there.

More pages