When stinky food makes friends: An injira story

As my last hurrah before I go without leavened, wheaty foods for a week in observance of Passover, I’ll talk about injira. There are a lot of flat breads in the world (my friend Suzanne has an entire cookbook with just flatbread recipes), but injira is special. Injira has a unique tang to it, a way about it that makes it finicky and challenging whether you choose to cook or buy it, and a miraculous way of creating new friends.

Injira is a soft, stretchy bread with a top covered in small craters like the bubbles that pop on pancakes. It’s usually brownish gray, and smells like sourdough bread. It’s eaten by tearing off pieces and scooping up various savory stews or salads. The flavor is distinct, like a strong sourdough, but it blends with and enhances many dishes remarkably well.

In my corner of Northwest DC, there are three places I know of to obtain the stuff. At two of them, I’ve seen it with my own eyes and bought it many times. At the third, I’ve only caught the elusive stuff once. Do you see where this gets tricky?

The three places are:

1) The Ethiopian market at Wyoming and 18th Street (in Adams Morgan – it’s about 3 blocks north of U Street). They also have various Ethiopian spices – including berbere spice mix (pronounced kind of like “bear berry”…but more on that later – you can make your own!)– and tchotchkes.

2) The market at 14th and P, near the place formerly known as Dakota Cowgirl. It’s kind of a large convenience store, with basic groceries. You’ll know you found the right place if you have to go through a turnstile to get in and the cashier’s counter makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland when she suddenly starts shrinking. Seriously, the counter is about at my eye level. Have your $6 ready to hoist into the nice man’s hands.

3) A market on Mount Pleasant Street, right next to the 7-Eleven. It’s at one of the cash registers there from about 9 a.m. every morning (when it gets delivered) to about 1 p.m., or whenever it runs out.

So now the injira buying basics. It’s $6 no matter where you buy it or what brand you get (unless it’s one special kind available at place #1, which is more expensive). You’ll get a clear plastic bag with 10 pieces of injira, stacked flat like ready-made pizza crusts. There are variations in the flour used, which can range from all teff flour to a combination of wheat and teff, to just wheat or other grains. My untrained palate hasn’t detected much difference.

Transport of your injira will be another tricky part. You need to keep the stack of flatbread flat or only slightly draped, which is tough to do with something measuring 16 inches in diameter with the consistency of an earlobe. It desperately wants to sag, slip out of your shopping bag, fold, and tear. If I’m walking, I drape the bag over my arm and take the stance of a French waiter with a dishtowel over one arm. Because injira is dense and heavy, this method of transport provides a nice triceps workout. On a bike, I’ve managed to drape it over the crossbar just so. A car is the easiest because you can lay it flat on a seat.

My injira stories are vast and random. Perhaps my favorite is when I was walking down 14th Street with newly-bought injira peaking out of my shopping bag. I suddenly hear “You’re eating injira?” and I see a woman with bright eyes walking toward me. We proceed to have a 20-minute conversation about what you can do with injira; why I, as a white American, have been drawn to it; and the woman’s own journey from Eritrea to the United States many years ago. When she mentioned that she was coming from Palm Sunday mass at a nearby church, I explained that I was Jewish and we added religious philosophizing to the mix.

My other conversations have pretty much started the same way. They begin when I’m spotted by someone who grew up eating injira like Wonder Bread in East Africa. He or she smiles in bewilderment and delight and says “You’re eating injira?” and wants to know what I do with it. My first reaction is usually annoyance. I want to say that I eat it like anyone else, then point out that injira isn’t a secret club. It isn’t sequestered away in the back room, only available to those who know the password; it’s there in the grocery store, just like potatoes or mayonnaise. But the annoyance quickly dissipates as I realize that, if it weren’t for the injira balanced awkwardly on my arm or bike frame, the two of us would have passed through each other’s lives unnoticed. (Through just such an interaction, I have learned an authentic method for cooking Ethiopian stew. Check out the recipe below.)

I have wondered about the reaction I get when I’m spotted with injira. Why is it so shocking to see a white girl walking along with the stuff? Other shoppers in the Latino grocery don’t lean over and say to me, in amazement, “You’re buying pablanos?” International foods are popular in many different circles — especially among middle class white Americans — and have been for a while. Ethiopian restaurants are frequented by many different sets. Perhaps consumers usually have their exotic foods prepared for them in carefully proscribed areas for a while before they warm up to the idea of attempting them at home, and perhaps Ethiopian food is still in that warm-up period. Is this what a culinary threshold looks like? If so, I’ve decided I’m proud to be carrying my doughy bride over it on my outstretched forearm.

Recently, I was checking out at Whole Foods and the cashier and I kept furtively eying each other. I remember having a broader smile than I pull out for the average stranger, but I couldn’t help it – I had a recollection of her with an undeniably positive charge. At just about the same second, we each admitted that the other looked familiar. As it turned out, it was the Palm Sunday woman. Even though we had shared just one conversation months earlier, this woman recognized me and I her. We had that injira connection. I’ll miss that when the novelty wears off.

I will leave you with a couple of recipes.

Lentil stew (intermediate, on account of the lack of quantities and cooking times)

Ingredients:
A lot of onions
Cooking oil for sautéing
Berebere spice (see below)
Lentils
Tomato paste (optional – my addition)

What to do:
Slice onions, heat oil in a large pot, sauté them on low heat for about an hour (basically caramelizing them), add some berbere spice mix, sauté a little more. Then mix the tomato paste with some water to thin it and add the mixture with lentils and more water (about three times as much as the lentils by volume) and cook until the lentils are tender. Add water as necessary. Check and stir often.

Berbere spice mix (basic—it’s just measuring spices and mixing them. Toasting and grinding them is optional)

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