injera

Some of the hottest new food items are ancient grains, grasses and seeds. From quinoa and freekeh to millet, spelt and amaranth, these protein-packed powerhouses have turned up as tasty alternatives to wheat. But it’s not only people with allergies or gluten intolerance that are turning to these ancient grains, because everyone can benefit from their hearty nutritional profiles. One of the grains with the biggest bang of nutrition is actually the smallest grain in the world: teff. Gluten-free and full of protein, this tiny North African grass tastes nutty and mild.

Also known as lovegrass, teff has been a staple of Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking for thousands of years. Our word teff comes from the root tff, which means “lost” – because of the grain’s small size, it’s easy to misplace. In fact, 100 grains of teff are the size of a kernel of wheat. One grain of teff is less than 0.8 millimeters in diameter, about the size of a poppy seed.

Teff tastes similar to millet or quinoa, however, because of its tiny stature it cooks much faster – using less fuel and energy. It also grows much more quickly, making it a favorite of people who are semi-nomadic or live in climates with short growing seasons and diverse altitudes. With a very high yield, one handful of teff is enough to sow an entire field of grass – and it sprouts in just 36 hours.

Teff contains all eight essential amino acids needed by humans, and it is high is iron, fiber, protein, and calcium. With no gluten, it is a top grain alternative for people with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Teff’s calcium content is truly impressive, too. One cup of cooked teff contains 123 milligrams, the highest calcium content of any grain. It’s also quite high in vitamin C, and contains a type of dietary fiber that can aid colon healthy, weight control and blood sugar management.

If you’ve ever eaten Ethiopian cuisine, you’ve probably tried teff. It’s used to make injera, the traditional spongy, sourdough flatbread served at every Ethiopian meal. You know all those kick-ass Ethiopian marathon runners that dominate in races across the world? Ask them what their secret is, and 9 out of 10 will tell you: teff.

Try adding teff to your diet and add an exotic source of protein to your meals. Traditionally the grain is ground into flour and fermented, or made into porridge and alcoholic beverages. But you can add it to a wide variety of dishes, no fermentation needed. Here’s how:

Crunchy Teff: Cook 1 cup of teff in 1 cup of water or stock for 6-7 minutes at a slow simmer. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. This will give you a grain with a poppy seed-like texture, which is perfect for sprinkling onto vegetable dishes, cereal, salads, soups and stews.

Creamy Teff: Bring 1 cup teff to a boil in 3 cups of water or stock. Reduce heat and cook for 20 minutes at a slow simmer, stirring occasionally. Let rest for 5 minutes, and then eat like porridge, topping with butter or salt and pepper.

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Image: SweetonVeg