Many cultures around the world have a grain that is not grown or even known outside its home area. Quinoa is from South America. Amaranth fed the Aztecs in Central America.
Now, an ancient grain from Ethiopia, teff, is appearing on grocery shelves in America. Teff has been an important part of the Ethiopian diet for thousands of years. Like oat, rice and wheat, it is a cereal grass. Teff is known for its small grain. It is used mainly to make flour.
Teff has a mild, nutty or earthy taste. Teff flour is the key ingredient for the well-known, spongy flatbread found in Ethiopian restaurants.
Wayne Carlson learned about teff while doing public health work in Africa in the mid-1970s. “I came to know teff because I was eating it all the time and hosted by teff farmers.“
In the late 70s, Carlson returned to the U.S., married and settled in southwest Idaho. Then he came up with an idea to introduce teff grass to North America in his home state. „Geologically, it is very similar to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is placed on the East African Rift Valley, which is very much like the Snake River Plain.“
Wayne and his wife Elisabeth are not farmers, nor do they want to be. So they convinced actual farmers in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada to grow teff on contract for them. The Carlsons milled it themselves. Until last year though, there was not a single Ethiopian restaurant or bakery in the entire state of Idaho to sell the milled flour to.
„The way we started was Wayne went through the Washington, D.C., telephone book and looked for the names that were Ethiopian.“
And that is how the business slowly grew for several decades, serving the Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrant community in the U.S. Over time, the Teff Company has outgrown four different mills. The first was a little stone grinder in the Carlsons‘ basement. Now, they occupy a remodeled brewery complex in Nampa, Idaho.
The Carlsons say the teff flour coming off the mill could end up in an upscale natural foods store or commercial bakery. A teff explosion – Sales of alternatives to modern wheat are growing quickly each year, says an industry trade group.
Rich Roseberg is a food researcher at Oregon State University. He says teff production has exploded over the past decade in the U.S. The grain has gone from 1,200 hectares in 2003 to more than 40,000 nationally by 2010. He says most teff grown in the U.S. is fed to farm animals. read more