Injera is a spongy, tangy flatbread predominantly made from the tiny but hardy, iron-rich ancient grain teff that proliferates in the Ethiopian highlands. Karim Degal and his mother Meftuha Osmen, who run the family business Mesnoy Injera Bakery in Melbourne’s western suburb of Footscray, a thriving hub of African culture and cuisine describe it as both, “the plate and cutlery of African food.”
They moved to Australia form Ethiopia in 1994, opening Mesnoy almost ten years later. Much-loved SBS host Maeve O’Meara visits them in episode two of brand new SBS series Food Safari Earth, trying her hand at pouring fermented injera mix onto a hot plate.
“Growing up as a kid in Ethiopia, I’d watch mum make it over the open fire on a big, big hot plate made from clay,” Degal tells SBS Food. “And I’m talking about maybe three times the size of the injeras that we make here.”
Predominantly used to serve and mop up stews and curries, the savoury flatbread complements anything spicy. “You don’t tend to use injera with sweet ingredients,” Degal insists.
He loves to start his day with a strong coffee and fresh injera dripping with melted butter and berbere, the bright red spice mix ubiquitous in Ethiopia. As a kid, that scent would have him ducking into neighbour’s homes.
That’s the thing. While the origins of injera – also popular in Eritrea and Somalia - have been lost to time, plates just like the one his mum worked on have been found in excavation sites dating back thousands of years. It’s part of the fabric of the country, with countless variations throughout Ethiopia. Sorghum, barley, wheat and corn flour are all used in the mix too.
One thing that remains consistent is the sense of community it inspires. “It’s always about eating together,” Degal says, noting that in Ethiopian culture, “it’s very common for people to feed you, regardless if you are an adult or a child, and it is a show of respect if somebody offers you food from their hand.”
He also tells SBS Food that a best man will offer a groom injera with a surprise inside at his wedding. “Which might be a very powerful chilli, which will obviously make him sweat a lot, or maybe there’s a bone left in there, just as a sort of joke.”
It’s not just the eating that’s communal; making injera is too. Shared kitchens and local mills are common in Ethiopian neighbourhoods, with everyone having each other’s back. “Your starter is very, very important,” Degal says. “Back home, if you’ve run out, you generally go across the road and borrow some.”
Making injera is serious business. “Teff likes to be worked, so the more you work the flour, the better the quality of the injera,” Degal tips.
The consistency of the mix is vital. It can’t be rushed. If you’re baking on a Sunday, he says you should make your flour mix on Wednesday or Thursday, add water on Saturday and leave it overnight. “By the time you come to it the next day, it has a really savoury, lemony taste to it which is very distinctive to injera.”
Keep an eye on the temperature, too. “If there’s a day when it’s really hot in here and somebody forgets to flip on the air-conditioning, we’ll come in the morning and it’s just a sea of white because it’s been bubbling away all night and it’s overflown,” Degal says. Too cold and it slows the process.
At Mesnoy, as O’Meara discovers, they pour the mix in a circular motion onto the hot plate, outside in. If cooking on a stovetop at home, Degal says you can pour in the middle and swivel the pan, keeping it thin. The injera is ready when air bubbles rise to the top.
It takes a while to get the hang of it, Degal reveals, adding it’s not uncommon for folks to come into Mesnoy asking for starter mix then be back in the next day to buy injera instead. But once you’ve got the knack, a tasty batch will last you almost a week. “By the fifth or sixth day it tends to get a bit crumbly, but you just make a stew and dip the old injera in it and it soaks it all up. Delicious.”
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