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Each month, we’re featuring a diﬀerent whole grain on the Whole Grains Council website, including information on its health beneﬁts, cooking tips and recipes, historical/cultural facts, and more. Click here to see the full calendar.
In November we’re celebrating two grains – Millet and Teﬀ, both of which have a long history in traditional diets. In November, Taiwan’s indigenous Bunun people hold a huge millet festival – you can even see the traditional singing of the millet hymn on YouTube. Meanwhile, across the globe in Horn of Africa countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea, teﬀ is being harvested in November, to be made into injera, the region’s traditional spongy ﬂatbread. So this month we’re oﬀering two full Grain of the Month features.
Continue reading below for our feature on teﬀ.
Click here to access our feature on millet.
All about Teﬀ
Teﬀ [Eragrostis tef] is the only fully-domesticated member of the genus Eragrostis (lovegrass). Its name is often assumed to be related to the word “lost” in Amharic – because of the tiny size (less than 1mm diameter – similar to a poppy seed) of its seeds.
This tiny size, in fact, makes teﬀ ideally suited to semi-nomadic life in areas of Ethiopia and Eritrea where it has long thrived. (The photo to the left shows teﬀ being harvested in Ethiopia.) A handful of teﬀ is enough to sow a typical ﬁeld, and it cooks quickly, using less fuel than other foods. Teﬀ also thrives in both waterlogged soils and during droughts, making it a dependable staple wherever it’s grown. No matter what the weather, teﬀ crops will likely survive, as they are also relatively free of plant diseases compared to other cereal crops.
Teﬀ can grow where many other crops won’t thrive, and in fact can be produced from sea level to as high as 3000 meters of altitude, with maximum yield at about 1800-2100m high. This versatility could explain why teﬀ is now being cultivated in areas as diverse as dry and mountainous Idaho and the low and wet Netherlands. Teﬀ is also being grown in India and Australia. In Kansas, the Kansas Black Farmers Association is experimenting with teﬀ – intrigued by both its connection to Africa and its market potential.
Growing in the ﬁelds, teﬀ appears purple, gray, red, or yellowish brown. Seeds range from dark reddish brown to yellowish brown to ivory.
Health Beneﬁts of Teﬀ
Teﬀ leads all the grains – by a wide margin – in its calcium content, with a cup of cooked teﬀ oﬀering 123 mg, about the same amount of calcium as in a half-cup of cooked spinach.
Teﬀ was long believed to be high in iron, but more recent tests have shown that its iron content comes from soil mixed with the grain after it’s been threshed on the ground – the grain itself is not unusually high in iron.
Teﬀ is, however, high in resistant starch, a newly-discovered type of dietary ﬁber that can beneﬁt blood-sugar management, weight control, and colon health. It’s estimated that 20-40% of the carbohydrates in teﬀ are resistant starches. A gluten-free grain with a mild ﬂavor, teﬀ is a healthy and versatile ingredient for many gluten-free products.
Since teﬀ’s bran and germ make up a large percentage of the tiny grain, and it’s too small to process, teﬀ is always eaten in its whole form. It’s been estimated that Ethiopians get about two-thirds of their dietary protein from teﬀ. Many of Ethiopia’s famed long-distance runners attribute their energy and health to teﬀ.
For a complete survey of the nutritional and health aspects of teﬀ, click here.
In Ethiopia, teﬀ is usually ground into ﬂour and fermented to make the spongy, sourdough bread known as injera. As anyone knows who has eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant anywhere in the world, injera is used as an edible serving plate. Food is piled on a large round of injera on a tray in the middle of the table and diﬀerent foods are served directly onto the injera. The diners eat by tearing oﬀ bits of injera, and rolling the food inside. Ethiopians also use teﬀ to make porridge and for alcoholic beverages, including tella and katikala.
Today, teﬀ is moving way beyond its traditional uses. It’s an ingredient in pancakes, snacks, breads, cereals and many other products, especially those created for the gluten-free market. You can also buy teﬀ wraps.
White or ivory teﬀ has the mildest ﬂavor, with darker varities having an earthier taste. Those who have only tasted teﬀ in injera assume it has a sour taste, but when it is not fermented (made into a sourdough), teﬀ has a sweet and light ﬂavor.
How you cook teﬀ depends on how you like to eat it, according to our WGC Culinary Advisors. Lorna Sass advises “dry cooking” teﬀ for 6-7 minutes, with 1 cup of teﬀ in 1 cup of water, then letting it stand covered for ﬁve minutes. Her approach results in a grain “with the texture of poppy seeds” that’s great for sprinkling on vegetables as a topping, or for adding to soups. Robin Asbell suggests cooking teﬀ for about 20 minutes, with 1 cup of teﬀ in 3 cups of water producing a creamier end product. The Teﬀ Company, in Idaho, advises cooking 1 cup of teﬀ in 3 cups of water or stock.
Here are some recipes you can try, to get acquainted with teﬀ:
Fun Facts About Teﬀ
Just one pound of teﬀ grains can grow an acre of teﬀ, while 100 pounds or more of wheat grains are needed to grow an acre of wheat.
Teﬀ requires only 36 hours to sprout, the shortest time of any grain.
Three thousand grains of teﬀ weigh just one gram (½8 of an ounce).
Teﬀ’s protein content (around 14%) is largely easily digested albumins (similar to a vegetable version of egg whites).
Teﬀ is thought to have originated in Ethiopia about 4000-1000 B.C.E.
Teﬀ is fermented by a symbiotic yeast living in the soluble ﬁber on the grain’s surface (like the blush on grapes).
Thanks to The Teﬀ Company for some of the information on this page, including the harvest photo.