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It’s a national obsession in Ethiopia and it has now made its way to the West. No, we’re not talking about coffee. We’re already appreciating that fabulous export. We’re rather speaking here of teff, a gluten-free grain rich in protein, high in calcium, iron and zinc that is being dubbed the “new quinoa.”
Not only are celebrities reportedly endorsing its benefits but newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times along with respected international broadcasters like the BBC, are also discussing the health credentials of this poppy-sized and sand-like seed.
Last year, the Guardian newspaper wrote that teff was “increasingly touted as Ethiopia’s “second gift to the world” after coffee” and Jimmy Doherty (and incidentally Jamie Oliver’s oldest pal) called it a “wonder-seed” in a documentary on The World’s Best Diet broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK.

It’s therefore not surprising that this ancient Ethiopian food cereal is gaining in popularity, even perhaps causing a bit of a stir and some excitement in healthy eating circles and among the gluten-free crowd. That’s because in the last few years, it was quinoa that everyone was talking and raving about, making it a healthy food must have. Not only did it become a household name for health-conscious consumers due to its nutritional benefits, versatility and value as a complete protein, but it also went mainstream, reaching supermarkets all over the world. Even the United Nations jumped on the bandwagon, declaring 2013 “International Year of Quinoa.”

Grown high up in the Andes, quinoa is a bead-shaped seed with a slightly nutty flavour and fluffy texture that is a complete protein. No wonder it’s been described as a pretty much as close to perfect as a food can get. But now there is a new kid on the block – teff.

“We all know that quinoa has been the big darling of the ancient grains scene for the last several years,” said Cynthia Harriman, director at the US-based World Grains Council, on BBC Radio 4, but “I see teff coming out into the spotlight, out of the shadows.”

Teff may be grabbing international attention with such headlines as “move over quinoa, teff is the new supergrain in town,” but Chinzalée Sonami, grocery buyer at Planet Organic in London, warns this takeover may not happen.

“I am not convinced it will take its place,” she explained. That’s because quinoa “is so versatile and easy to use. You can boil, steam and voilà, you can use it as a base for anything” but “you might not make yourself a quick bowl of teff to go with your veg.”

Quinoa can be added to a soup, salad, or even a risotto but teff is not as flexible. The grain is tiny – in fact, it is the smallest grain in agriculture – and because of that “you can’t quite use it as a base to anything without turning in porridge,” according to Sonami.

Teff has a sweet and light flavour and is most often ground, sold as flour and used in foods like bread, cookies, cakes, flapjacks, waffles, crackers, wafers, pasta and even tortilla chips. And like quinoa, you can now buy it as a non-dairy milk substitute.

Packed with goodness and boasting a mean nutritional punch, teff is unprocessed and provides eight essential amino acids. It is high in vitamin C, a nutrient not usually found in other grains or cereals, and an excellent source of soluble fibre, which helps to maintain blood sugar levels, weight control and colon health.

At Whole Foods Market in London, teff flour is getting more popular, selling 27% more than last year, but quinoa is still a superstar. Quinoa flour sales are double those of teff flour and growing faster as well.

Teff flour, like quinoa, is a great alternative to wheat flour. It has formed the basis of traditional Ethiopian cuisine for centuries, being one of the earliest cereals to have been cultivated in the country.

Grown by an estimated 6.3 million farmers, it is a basic food staple that is eaten pretty much three times a day. There, people slowly ferment the grain to make a spongy flatbread, basically a pancake, with a sourdough taste that is called “injera.”

The World Grains Council estimates that Ethiopians get two-thirds of their protein intake from teff. And Ethiopian long-distance runners even attribute their energy and success to teff.

Teff is the country’s most important crop and holds a prized place in people’s hearts. So much so that it is integrally linked to the country’s national identity like whisky to the Scots. It also has huge cultural significance for Ethiopians. At Addis Ababa airport, visitors are greeted with billboards rejoicing: “Teff: the ultimate gluten-free crop!”

But the teff flour you buy here in the West doesn’t come from Ethiopia. That’s because the Ethiopian government banned its export in 2006 to prevent prices from rising and ensure that the local population can continue to afford it.

The teff flour you get here comes from suppliers like Tobia Teff, a UK-based company owned by an Ethiopian, which grows and imports the grain from Southern Europe, namely Spain, Portugal and Greece, where there is a climate similar to that of Ethiopia.

By contrast, quinoa’s global popularity has had a detrimental effect in Bolivia where it has been grown for centuries. Not too long ago, it was a cheap food staple there but ever since health conscious Westerners discovered its amazing benefits, the local price has soared and many can no longer afford it.

By our online editor Chantal Ouimet

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