Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Putting together a recipe: injera

Injera is an Ethiopian flatbread that is used both as a plate and a spoon for their rich “wat” or stews. We are having a berbere-seasoned beef, butternut squash, and cashew stew tonight so I thought I would look into making a little injera. Normally I would not have bread, as it’s very high on the glycemic index, making it unsuitable for our diet. However, injera calls for two parts whole grain flour and one part white flour. So a little bit of it to soak up the juices from the stew will be okay. It is also somewhat acidic, which lowers the glycemic index even more as it changes the way that the body metabolizes the carbohydrates. In traditional Ethiopian cuisine, a layer of injera is laid down on a platter or right on the table, and the stew is spooned over it. More injera is served on the side, and each person uses the bread to pick up bites of the stew in a communal meal.

As I usually do when making something new, I did a literature search. To my dismay, none of my baking books mention injera and I don’t have any books on African cooking. I will have to rectify that; I checked on “The Good Cook” online (the Book of the Month Club for cooks) and they didn’t have any. I’ll work on that task later. An online search turned up a half-dozen recipes and so I got the concepts: a pretty sour batter, with a mixture of whole grain like wheat and buckwheat or teff with some white flour, that uses yeast and baking powder/baking soda. Some of the recipes call for letting the batter sit and ferment for up to three days. That signals to me that using my starter, which is nice and sour, would be an okay place to start. The batter is cooked like a crepe, and is supposed to be thicker than a crepe but thinner than a pancake, cooked only on one side and not browned. It is supposed to have lots of small bubbles that break on the surface, resulting in a sponge-like look and texture. Sort of like cooking a crumpet, if you know what crumpets look like.

The research leads me to the recipe I’ve come up with. A cup of starter, awakened with a cup of very warm water. A teaspoon of sugar, a half-teaspoon of yeast. One half cup each of rye, whole wheat, and AP flours. Whisk together. Add ¼ t of baking powder. Add enough more warm water to form a thick batter. Cover and let stand for an hour or so. Then when I am ready to cook, whisk in ½ t baking soda and ½ t salt. Cook in a 10” non-stick skillet (I am using my omelet pan). Heat over medium heat until a water droplet skitters across the surface. Pour in 1/3 cup of batter and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Look for bubbles to appear on the surface and then break. Remove when the bread is firm, before the bottom starts to brown. Of course you can use a different size pan, just modify the amount of batter you put in. Someday I may try to make a dinner-plate sized bread, like I got in a restaurant. As you can see from the photos it got the open bubbles just like it is supposed to.

One thing that fascinated me as I cooked the injera were the chemical reactions I knew were happening: I put the baking soda in right before cooking, so it was still reacting with the acidity of the batter and making bubbles, and more bubbles were created as the baking powder reacted to the heat of the pan. This was in addition to the bubbles from the yeast.

I am not claiming that this is authentic, as I am not Ethiopian nor did I learn it at my momma’s knee. But it does work, and it is like what I have been served in an Ethiopian restaurant. It made a great base for the stew.

A note on my recipe search: when I am looking for ethnic recipes, I start with It used to be called S.O.A.R., the Searchable Online Archive of Recipes, and was hosted at Cal Berkeley. It started as an online database project. Anyone can submit recipes, and I have found that a lot of college students from outside the US who are hungry for “home cooking” post the recipes their mom gives them. It is one of many resources I use for recipe development.

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